Only 4 days after losing to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, the Carolina Hurricanes return to MSG to again take on the Rangers.
The game finds the Hurricanes in the middle of a bumpy roller coaster ride from site to site across the Eastern Conference. After wrapping up a successful 4-1 home stand, things started well enough on the road with a win against the Maple Leafs. But then consecutive decent efforts were sabotaged by a couple too many mistakes and not enough scoring to leave any margin for error. The results were consecutive losses in Montreal and then Ottawa over Thanksgiving weekend. A slow start at home on Sunday against Florida with AHL call up Michael Leighton in net seemed to spell doom for a busy 4-game holiday week. But much to Canes’ fans delight, Jeff Skinner and Michael Leighton both surged and led the Hurricanes to a fun come from behind win to net a very respectable 2-2 week.
But while serving as a decent cap to salvage a good previous week, the win on Sunday did not start another winning streak. On Tuesday in New York, the Hurricanes suffered another of the kind of losses that have driven Canes fans batty in 2016-17. After surging to a 2-goal lead on the back of depth scoring from Viktor Stalberg, the Hurricanes failed to do much else and ultimately lost the game 3-2. Boston on Thursday offered little relief. The Hurricanes did pick up an OTL point, but lost a 1-0 lead with only 30 seconds remaining to get there, again leaving a sour taste in Canes fans’ mouths.
But for another tough 4-game week against strong competition, with 3 games on the road and with another back-to-back set to close out the week, 4 points in 4 games would be the good version of treading water (beats drowning right?). With missed opportunities and only 1 point out of 4 to start the week, the task ahead is challenging but doable hopefully following a similar formula to last week. First the Hurricanes need to find a way to scratch out at least 1 point in New York on Saturday. If that is accomplished, the Hurricanes will again play a home finale against another team that played and traveled the night before with a chance to collect a respectable, treading water 4 points.
Against that backdrop, here is what I will be watching for Saturday’s game between the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the New York Rangers
1) More offense, any kind of offense
After scoring in bunches on the road to start the season, the Hurricanes have not scored more than 2 goals on the road since that beginning road trip that ended on October 25. Starting in November, the Hurricanes have netted only 12 goals in 8 games on the road for a paltry 1.5 goals per game average. If you include the 18:09 of scoreless overtime hockey for the Hurricanes, the situation looks even worse.
In a nutshell, I think it goes like this:
1) Jeff Skinner is doing his part albeit sporadically and more so at home than on the road where teams can regularly send their best 5 defensively out to stop him. He has 2 goals and 2 assists in the 8 games which is not great but is sometimes what happens when other teams stack the deck defensively against a team’s best scorer. The way an occasional off night like Thursday stands out so much right now is more a function of the lack of help than of Jeff Skinner’s contribution offensively.
2) There has been virtually nothing for depth below Skinner save for the fourth line which is overachieving. Stalberg has a big 3 goals for the slate of 8 road games.
3) Right now, the system is not generating the kind of across the lineup scoring that is desired. While there is a component of missed opportunities, the Hurricanes just are not generating a bunch of high-quality chances right now. Save for a couple Jeff Skinner breakaways, the Boston Bruins loss on Thursday harkened back to Hurricanes struggles of recent years in which he Hurricanes peppered the opposing goalie with a reasonably high volume of low quality shots that the goalie could track with not enough traffic and chaos in front of the net.
At this point, it is all hands on deck trying to get to 3 goals without gambling and giving up too much to do it. Can the power play get some chances and rise up? Are Derek Ryan, Brock McGinn and Phil Di Giuseppe due to break onto the score sheet at even strength?
2) Can a hero lead the way?
Sometimes in tough times and in tough games, a team just needs someone to rise up and put the team on his back. Jeff Skinner has done exactly this on multiple occasions this season. Viktor Stalberg more or less did this but without results when he scored twice in the first period on Tuesday to get the Hurricanes off and running. And Cam Ward came really close to wearing a cape in a win on Thursday before a goal with 30 seconds left snatched the desired result out from under his strong effort in net.
With Jordan Staal still out of the lineup and likely now Elias Lindholm too, can someone rise up and lead the way? Justin Faulk? Jeff Skinner? Cam Ward? Anyone else?
3) Desperation for 60 minutes and a killer instinct
What is maybe most frustrating about the Hurricanes run of 4 straight road losses (including the OTL on Thursday) is that the Hurricanes have not actually played that poorly in total. The team led in all 4 games and was in each of them late before ultimately losing. If I had to pick only a couple drivers of the 4 losses it would be the combination of inability to score enough to finish off games and a couple too many costly and untimely mistakes that helped tip outcomes to the loss column.
To win on Saturday, the Hurricanes will need to bring a similar level of consistent effort and if given the chance will need to do a better job of closing out aggressively versus just trying to hold on for dear life down the stretch.
If you are busy on Saturday afternoon, be sure to set your DVR. The puck drops a little bit after 1pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.