Monday’s post-Thanksgiving match up between the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden is a match up of the top of the Metropolitan Division against the bottom. The Rangers have actually fallen to second place behind Washington but are still clearly on the list of teams to watch come spring and summer hockey. The Hurricanes are tied for last in the division with Columbus.
But the underlying story is more complicated. The Rangers actually come into the game struggling with 3 consecutive losses. The Hurricanes just finished off another ‘barely treading water’ 1-1-1 week that featured 3 bottom tier opponents (Philadelphia, Edmonton, Buffalo). One might hope that the Canes could pounce on a struggling opponent, but that has not been the case recently. The Flyers entered recent Canes match ups with 2-game and 3-game (2 OTLs in that set) and beat the Hurricanes. Buffalo used its Canes match up on Friday to break a 6-game losing streak (including 2 OTLs).
The game also features an interesting side show with Eric Staal playing in New York. There are numerous options for how his situation plays out, but if I had to bet on 1 scenario, my money says that Eric Staal ultimately gets traded to the Rangers just before the trade deadline in February. It just makes too much sense. The Rangers are very much playing to win a Stanley Cup now. Any other outcome for the 2015-16 season will be at least a modest disappointment. There is a challenge to make the salary situation work even in February, but the Rangers should be near the top of the list of teams willing to invest futures to win today. And because the team is a legitimate contender, it should be among the list of places that Eric Staal would waive his no-trade clause for a short run at a Cup before figuring out what happens next summer.
But getting back to the game at hand on Monday night, here is what I’m watching:
1) A better Ward
I think lackluster is how I would describe his play of late. He has not been horrible, but he has been average at best lately. He let in 3 goals (all of which he had a chance on) in 2 periods against Philadelphia in a game that the Canes were winning in terms of possession, stats and anything else except scoreboard. In the Canes first appearance in New York, the Canes were the better team early but Lundqvist gave up nothing while Ward gave up something. That staked the Rangers to a lead and a path to a win. Can Ward find the higher gear from the Western Conference road trip from times gone by? Or will this game just cause the ‘give Eddie Lack more ice time’ murmurs to get louder?
2) The kids on D
I might as well just copy this to the clipboard. In a season with more ups than downs so far, the emergence and development of the kids on the Hurricanes blue line continues to be my favorite story to track.
Brett Pesce: What I like most about his game is that he looks like he skipped the part where he tries to get comfortable and settle in and just started immediately with playing solid hockey and trying to win games. That is the mentality that the team needs from the young guns. I think the Canes start rising when these young players are leading the charge and not settling for ‘learning’ or ‘being adequate while the veterans lead.’ Brett Pesce seems to be on that path already.
Jaccob Slavin: As much as I like Brett Pesce’s play, the player I am watching most closely right now is Jaccob Slavin. What intrigues me about his start is how he seems to have packed up his game and style of play from lower levels and brought it lock, stock and barrel to the NHL. He is a puck-carrying defenseman with some Joni Pitkanen in him and so far has not compromised on that higher risk/higher reward style of play. I wrote it up in more detail in this recent post HERE, but the short version is that if the defense is to become a strength for the Canes it includes not just playing sound defense but using the back end to boost the entire offense. Despite being only 5 games into his NHL career, Jaccob Slavin might be making his way down this path the fastest.
Noah Hanifin: He now has 20 games of NHL experience and seems to be settling in a higher level. He and Jaccob Slavin are paired and look pretty comfortable together. Like Slavin, his strength and his game should have an element of Joni Pitkanen to it as well. I continue to watch for him to start opening things up a bit as he gets comfortable while also recognizing that it is important to be patient. Justin Faulk started from a modest base in terms of carrying the puck and doing much offensively and obviously developed incredibly well over a few years.
3) Andrej Nestrasil/Jordan Staal
With Coach Bill Peters running the same lines for a few games for the first time all season, the current combination of Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom is getting some run time. When you look at the individual components, the line has some size/strength and solid defensive player, but it is light on pure offense. Nestrasil and Staal have had some good stretches playing a puck possession/cycling game in the offensive zone but have not had much luck converting it to scoring. I think the formula looks a bit like the BBC (Battaglia/Brind’Amour/Cole) line from the past. The key is to keep the puck in the offensive zone, ultimately get it to the point and then crash the net for effort goals. If this line can do some of the heavy lifting in terms of defensive match ups and find a way to add modest scoring, it makes it possible to balance the top 3 lines. I continue to watch if this trio can break through offensively.
Puck drop is a little bit after 7pm on Fox Sports with John, Tripp and Michelle.