Not too long ago the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs were in a similar boat as teams trying to quickly rebuild around a talented young core. The Hurricanes strength was its young blue line, and the Maple Leafs strength was its dynamic core of young forwards.
Fast forward to today, and the Maple Leafs have emphatically climbed out of the rebuilding boat and are among the best teams in the NHL right now. The addition of John Tavares obviously did not hurt, but I think the more significant thing is the degree to which young players have lived up to their potential. Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly have become the offensive leaders they were projected to be, and even minus Matthews who is still out with an injury and William Nylander, the young Maple Leafs are a scoring juggernaut. In addition, after an up and down beginning in Toronto in front of a questionable defense, goalie Frederik Andersen right now is everything the Leafs had hoped for when they paid dearly to acquire him two years ago. Sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings and being mentioned as a Cup contender, the Leafs have transitioned from rebuilding to legitimately chasing big goals.
Meanwhile, the Carolina Hurricanes side of the ledger is still a work in progress. The team did a bit of a restart with the young blue line when it added veterans Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan this summer and parted ways with Noah Hanifin. The fact that a goalie claimed off of waivers from the Maple Leafs is likely to start this big game tells you where the Hurricanes are in terms of figuring out netminding. And the young forward group is learning not dominating at this early stage of their development. Still sitting in the middle of the pack, the Canes 2018-19 season has the potential to go any direction from here. But I think it is fair to say that the team is still fighting to make the transition from rebuilding to contending.
History lesson aside, the game is a big one for the Hurricanes. The team sits one game above .500 and has two home games sandwiched around Thanksgiving to convert what is currently a 2-1-1 home stand into something more significant. The Hurricanes schedule of late has been heavy on opponents from the bottom third of the league. Last Saturday’s foray into the upper echelon did not go well in a 4-1 drubbing by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Toronto Maple Leafs represent another higher-end test.
Against that backdrop, here are my watch points for Wednesday’s game.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Toronto Maple Leafs
1) Rising to the level of the opposition
The Maple Leafs come into the game having won seven out of their last eight games including a 4-2 win over the Blue Jackets team that beat the Hurricanes handily last Saturday. The Hurricanes will need to bring their best on Wednesday and play well for a full 60 minutes. The team has not managed to do that in the past few games. The win over New Jersey was a good one but leaned heavily on a couple early goals and then just mostly ground forward from there. The Columbus loss was not good in any way. Can the Hurricanes rise to the challenge and bring their best on Wednesday?
2) Defending the slot
The Columbus Blue Jackets methodically picked the Hurricanes defensive zone coverage apart by playing to the walls and then exploiting open passing lanes and poor defensive zone coverage to regularly generate grade A scoring chances from between the face-off circles. The Maple Leafs no doubt have seen the tape and bring even more in terms of raw offensive talent. Can the Hurricanes tighten up play in their defensive zone?
3) Reversion to an attacking style
The way to beat a strong offensive team like the Maple Leafs is not to try to shut them down offensively. That is generally fruitless. While defense is important, the path to winning hockey on Wednesday is to attack the Maple Leafs, force them to play more defense than offense and hopefully put a few pucks in the net. Can the Hurricanes reach back to September and early October and bring an attacking style of hockey that puts the Leafs on their heels and forces them to defend more than attack?
I bumped it to #4, but for the time being goaltending is an every game watch point. Curtis McElhinney was solid in allowing only one goal in Sunday’s win and figures to start against his former team on Wednesday. If Brind’Amour instead turns to Scott Darling, he would be looking at a chance to rebound from the loss to the Blue Jackets and trying again to find a rhythm and start some kind of run.
The puck drops at 7:07pm at PNC Arena.