December 1 is obviously way too early to call a game a ‘must win’ game for the season, but Thursday’s game is an important game within the smaller universe of having a good week and pushing further into the season within spitting distance of a playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Last week, the Hurricanes had a tough 4-game week with 3 on the road and a back-to-back to cap off 3 games in 4 days to finish it. The Hurricanes won the first game, then lost 2 in a row before a rousing 3-2 come from behind win on Sunday salvaged a respectable 2-2 week.
With a loss to the Rangers already in the rear view mirror this week and a return trip to Madison Square Garden looming for Saturday before another home back-to-back finale, Thursday’s game is 1 that the Hurricanes need to get to keep treading water.
The opponent is the Boston Bruins. With a 12-10-1 record, the Bruins enter the game in the top part of the massive cluster of teams in the Eastern Conference but sputtering a bit of late. Boston is only 1-3-1 in its past 5 games and is expected to be without key defensemen Zdeno Chara and former Hurricanes player John-Michael Liles who have been out with injuries.
For the Hurricanes, the game will be the team’s second game minus leader Jordan Staal who is out with a concussion sustained in Sunday’s game. After a disappointing loss on Tuesday to the Rangers that saw the Hurricanes blow a 2-goal lead, the Hurricanes will enter Thursday’s match up in Boston trying to re-solidify things defensively and still trying to build a more balanced offensive attack.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes against the Boston Bruins
1) A greater offensive attack
Against a somewhat undermanned Boston Bruins’ blue line, theoretically the Hurricanes could be better able to exploit favorable match ups and generate more offense. Can Skinner/Rask who were pretty quiet on Tuesday muster a big game on the road? Can the fourth, maybe now third line, of Nordstrom/McClement/Stalberg keep chipping in more than that is usually expected from a fourth line? Can the newest combination (McGinn/Ryan/Di Giuseppe as reported by Michael Smith from the team at today’s morning skate) of AHL call ups manning the third line finally chip in with an even strength goal? What about Aho/Teravainen/Stempniak in a boosted second line role minus Jordan Staal?
Put more succinctly, the Hurricanes offense which has been struggling to do enough of late needs to find a higher gear.
2) The goaltending
After a stellar November, Cam Ward closed out the month on a bit of a down note. To be clear, he has not been horrible of late, nor is he solely to blame for the Hurricanes recent struggles. But he has cooled off a bit and more significantly for me offered a few telltale signs that he might be drifting from his happy place in net. When Ward is playing well, his game is incredibly calm and patient mostly seeing him in exactly the right place and making what could be difficult saves look easy. And that is how he looked for most of November. But while not being completely at fault in the 3 goals allowed on Tuesday (all had an element of defensive break downs and/or the puck being loose in the slot without enough defensive coverage), featured Cam Ward impatiently going down a bit early. Two rebound goals had Ward prone on the ice with a ton of open net to shoot at as he scrambled. The third goal saw Ward in a really tough spot with Rick Nash steaming in, but he did go down early giving Nash time and an opening in the top part of the net.
The Hurricanes strong 7-5-2 record was built largely on the foundation of Cam Ward’s strong month. Especially with a tough road-heavy schedule and the absence of Jordan Staal, the Hurricanes will need continued strong play in net to at least stay within range of the playoff chase over the next few weeks.
Early in the game on Thursday, I will be watching to see if Ward’s play is characterized more by the calm, patient play of most of November or if it has an increasing element of the impatient, ‘go down early’ tendencies that seem to rear up more regularly when he is playing at a lower level.
3) Return to sound play defensively especially for Hainsey/Faulk
The fairly common formula for the Hurricanes’ recent losses has been generally decent play overall coupled with difficulty converting reasonably strong play and puck possession into enough good scoring chances and goals and also a few too many defensive miscues that have found the back of the Hurricanes’ net frequently of late.
Hainsey/Faulk had an especially rough game on Tuesday being front and center for all 3 Rangers goals. The first was more of a break down defensively by Jeff Skinner who was a step slow covering a defenseman stepping in from the point, but Faulk was also right in the middle of it. The second goal saw Ron Hainsey make a horrible turnover at the offensive blue line right at the beginning of the third period. Justin Faulk was in a tough spot but also in a reasonably decent position to match speed and hinder a rushing Rick Nash but did almost nothing to limit his chance. The last goal saw Hainsey in the box, admittedly on a questionable call, and Faulk again generally in the right place in front of the net but just not able to help keep the puck from getting behind Ward.
I wrote about “the Jordan Staal effect” at the tail end of my game recap from Tuesday’s loss. Coach Bill Peters’ recent formula for success has been matching strength on strength at home with the trio of Slavin/Pesce and Staal taking the toughest match up at home, and then decoupling the 2 strongest defensive units on the road using Staal’s line being used to support Hainsey/Faulk on the road. The sample size is incredibly small at 1 game, but my concern and therefore watch point for tonight is whether Hainsey/Faulk had truly boosted their level of play defensively over the past few weeks or if more so Jordan Staal just makes any defense pairing look good because they have so much help and spend so little time defending in their own end when he is on the ice.
So I will be watching Hainsey/Faulk closely for a bounce back game in Boston.
4) The third line
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe talks about difference kinds of depth. The short version is that the Hurricanes are making progress in terms of promising 2-3 year away prospect depth and also in terms of AHL-level depth with some NHL experience who can at least fill gaps at the NHL level. But the team is much less farther along in terms of having true NHL-level depth that makes it hard to get into and stay in the top 9 at forward and that can provide a balanced scoring attack across at least 3 lines. Whether it was Aho/Lindholm/Teravainen to start the season or more recently Derek Ryan centering a mix of players, the Hurricanes are getting virtually nothing in terms of scoring at even strength from the third line. The problem was masked early by Jeff Skinner’s massive scoring outburst to start the season and more recently by help from the fourth line and the ability to hang in low scoring games behind the strong play of Cam Ward. But as the season progresses, the need for more depth scoring from that third line is becoming more pressing. The Hurricanes have now lost 3 games by 1 goal in the past 4 and mustered only 5 goals total in those 3 games.
Tuesday features a return to the lineup for Brock McGinn after a short layoff due to an injury and possibly Peters’ tinkering preferences. Thursday also features game 2 for Phil Di Giuseppe after his recall from Charlotte. After a slow start scoring-wise at the NHL level, this week’s “Checking In” report on the Charlotte Checkers by Jordan Futrell found Di Giuseppe refinding his scoring touch at the AHL level. Can the combination of McGinn/Ryan/Di Giuseppe who were all scoring at the AHL level scratch the score sheet at the NHL level tonight?
The puck drops a little bit after 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.