Tuesday’s game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Vancouver Canucks starts a long six-game road trip for the Hurricanes that also entails eight of nine away from home with only a brief one-game stop in Raleigh to say hello to family members. With the Hurricanes slightly below the rapidly rising pack of teams in the Metropolitan Division and the 2017-18 season finding itself in familiar December territory teetering on the fence between contender and pretender, the trip could make or break the season. Though the Hurricanes do need to find a higher gear and reel of a stretch of wins to have a chance in the league’s toughest division, I am more conservatively hoping the team can mostly tread water so that when a couple stretches of home schedule arrive they still matter.
The opponent is a Canucks team that is maybe supposed to be entering a rebuilding phase but instead is very much in the thick of the playoff chase at fourth place in the Pacific Division. Interestingly, Vancouver is only 4-5-3 at home which seems to leave a nice opening for the Hurricanes.
But the biggest story of the game for me is how much if any of a carry over the Hurricanes will have from a spirited effort on Saturday that seemed to dial up physicality, determination, hunger and any other intangibles type measurement to a season high.
Tuesday’s Daily Cup of Joe also addresses keys for the entirety of the road trip, but below is what I’m watching specifically for Tuesday’s road trip starter.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Vancouver Canucks
1) Justin Williams and the carry over
To make the playoffs, my belief is that the Carolina Hurricanes will need to find a noticeably higher gear for a fairly extended stretch of play (maybe 2-3 weeks minimum) during the 2017-18 season. The current trajectory of finding a few small bursts of wins but then retreating a step or two during a lesser week is a recipe for sort of, kind of, not really being in the playoff hunt in early to mid-March but always being on the outside looking in until a short losing streak ends the season. The Hurricanes need to be better not necessarily for all of the rest of the season but at least for an extended run.
On the score board, Saturday’s win did not look significantly different from the rest of the up and down season. The Canes grinded out a marginal overtime win against an NHL bottom dweller at home which does not look overly impressive. But for those who track the team on a game by game basis, the set up and the tone of that game were unmistakably different. Coming out of the loss the night before, Justin Williams delivered an agitated interview that had none of the “just need to win the next one,” “did not catch the bounces”, “it’s a long season”, etc. Instead, he very clearly said that the loss was not good enough and that the team needed to do better. The next game the Hurricanes started fast and played well in the first period maybe not unlike a few other bounce back efforts. But for me the game changed when the Hurricanes skating and shooting did not yield instantaneous results. Instead of only continuing down the path of playing a skating game and peppering the goalie with a ton of low probability shots, the Hurricanes dialed up the physical play and fighting (both literally and figuratively) mentality. Brock McGinn and Noah Hanifin dropped the gloves. Joakim Nordstrom had a thunderous hit. The team fought for ice space near the crease and pushed against opposing players both before and after the whistle. In short, the Hurricanes suddenly looked the part of an agitated hockey team that expected to win, was not getting their way and decided to find a higher level of intensity to make it happen. And it did.
The burning question for me right now is whether this different level of intensity and style of play is something that the team can make a bigger part of its every game formula. Can the Hurricanes bring this again on Tuesday and then the next game and the next game such that they are transformed in a sense? Or are efforts like Saturday’s reserved for every few weeks or so when the level of desperation reaches a threshold?
This, above all else, is what I will be watching for especially early in Tuesday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks.
2) The netminder
As of writing this, I have not seen official word on the goaltending. My wild guess is that Peters will go back to Cam Ward after a good even if imperfect effort in a win on Saturday. If this happens, it will be a significant stake in the sand for the 2017-18 season. Up until now Ward has seen regular action, but all of his starts were starts that would be reasonably given to “the backup.” He has played once in each of the back-to-backs and had a few other starts that made sense for the #2 to break things up and keep him active.
Coming off another back-to-back set that was split and with two days off between games, Tuesday’s game would logically go to “the starter.” So if I am correct and Peters does go to Ward, it is a bit of a fork in the road in terms of the goalie situation.
I have mixed feelings about it. At a very basic level, I would be okay with starting Ward again after his win on Saturday, especially with Darling sputtering a bit right now. But at a higher level, I strongly believe that the path higher for the Hurricanes will need to include Scott Darling playing at a higher level as the starter. So in that regard, wavering even temporarily from just continuing to trot Darling out as the #1 comes with some risks.
The team made it through 25 games without goalie role controversy. On Tuesday, I will be watching to see if just touch of that begins to creep into the picture with a Cam Ward start.
Regardless of who plays goalie against Vancouver, I will be watching to see if the position can exude confidence and stability early. Ward did exactly that on Saturday, and it helped the team in front of him. If Darling gets the start, he could definitely use such an effort.
3) Multiple sources of offense
Especially on the road, the Hurricanes could benefit from more sources of offense. The TSA line might be cooling just a tad after a lights out run. And with teams able to match up how they want on the road, the Hurricanes will need a more balanced offensive attack. Jeff Skinner’s goal on Saturday hopefully ignites his next outburst. Regardless of who it is, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can generate offense throughout the lineup.
Tuesday is the first of a run of five games with 10 or 10:30pm local time starts. Get your coffee ready possibly with Bailey’s or another alcoholic adder ready if needed! The traditional December #CanesAfterDark kicks off tonight at 10pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike!