To push up into the NHL playoff chase, a team must have stretches where it wins in bunches and climbs above the break even mark. The Hurricanes actually did that for a short stretch in November with a strong 5-game home stand that saw tough competition but also a favorable schedule with nice spacing and all of the games at home. But over the course of a long 82-game season, there are also stretches where a team must simply hold things together and tread water.
With Jordan Staal out of the lineup and a tough stretch of schedule that is heavy on all of road games, tough match ups and busy 3-in-4 and back-to-back sets, I think the Hurricanes are hitting 1 of those stretches. After 4 games with travel after each game last week, the Hurricanes will do that again this week. The schedule sees not 1 but 2 games in New York against the Rangers who are second in the entire NHL right now. At some point the Hurricanes will need to do better, but considering the schedule and the Jordan Staal situation, grinding out 4 points in 4 games is the good version of treading water for the week. Anything else is a bonus.
It starts tonight at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the New York Rangers
1) The lineup and how well it works
For my Daily Cup of Joe today, I offered my thoughts on how to fill the gaping hole left by Jordan Staal’s absence. My shuffling was on the high end of aggressive building a new checking line with Lindholm centering Nordstrom and Stalberg. My best guess is that Bill Peters will move Lindholm back to the center position but will be much less aggressive in terms of shuffling some of the combinations that have been working fairly well.
1a) Elias Lindholm
Also per my post this morning, I think the timing could be exactly right for a positive challenge that helps Elias Lindholm find the next higher gear on his development path. After a slow start, he has been playing his best hockey in the past 6-8 games with a noticeably higher gear in terms of puck engagement. Could thrusting him into a bigger role and challenging him be exactly what he needs to dial it up even further and push through the seemingly low ceiling on his play relative to expectations and draft pedigree? I will be watching closely to see if that is the case.
1b) The third and fourth lines in bigger roles
The absence of Jordan Staal is likely to have the effect of Bill Peters needing to use multiple lines in different roles to fill the hole. If left together, the Nordstrom/McClement/Stalberg checking line that has been playing well is likely to assume a chunk of the defensive zone draw work previously handled by Jordan Staal. This role is critical for gaining puck possession and successfully transitioning from defense to offense to keep the play balanced. Timing would be incredibly good for for the third line to break through scoring-wise. The line centered by Derek Ryan has generally held its own and even created a decent number of chances but has not contributed much offensively 5-on-5.
2) Leaders rising up
Jeff Skinner put the team on his back to start the second period in Sunday’s win. He had a breakaway goal and another breakaway that drew a penalty that led to a power play goal. And more broadly, when his pace and energy dialed up the rest of the team followed. He has had multiple times this season when he has single-handedly dragged his team forward especially offensively. With Jordan Staal out and a tough stretch of schedule this week, the Canes could really use another burst of Jeff Skinner burst mode.
Cam Ward has also been right in the middle of some of the Hurricanes best hockey including the successful home winning streak. Can he steal a game or 2 if that is what it takes this week to keep pushing forward positively?
Since starting slow and then missing a couple games with an injury, Justin Faulk has been quietly building his game. He has not had a ton of scoring points of late, nor has he been a regular in the 3 stars, but both Faulk and Hainsey’s defensive play has solidified of late. Could it be time for the next leg up in terms of Faulk dominating defensively and also helping boost the offense from the back end?
3) Combination of hunger and soundness
Against a Rangers team that can quickly counterattack if you make mistakes and then smother you defensively with a lead, the Hurricanes must find a balance between playing with a level of desperation and aggressiveness but also playing sound hockey. The 2 road losses last week both featured generally decent Hurricanes efforts but also a couple break downs that led to goals against and contributed significantly to a pair of 2-1 losses. Can the Hurricanes find a hungry intensity to boost their play minus 1 of the team’s leaders but also not go overboard and make mistakes trying too hard? That could have a significant say in whether the Hurricanes can hang with the Rangers or if instead a couple mistakes put them in the difficult position of chasing the game.
Right out of the gate, I will be looking for an intensity level that recognizes the need for the entire team to find a higher gear to beat a good opponent. After that I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can find a hero or 2, a la Jeff Skinner and Michael Leighton on Sunday, to help lead them to victory.
The puck drops a little bit after 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.