On Thursday, the Carolina Hurricanes played 1 of their worst games of the season in a 5-1 loss to New Jersey. On Saturday with 3 AHL call-ups inserted into the lineup, the team rebounded for an impressive win against the Eastern Conference-leading Montreal Canadiens.
Sunday sees a 5pm match up against the upstart Coyotes. The Coyotes are another team from the same ‘supposed to be rebuilding’ category as the Hurricanes, but now about one-third into the 2015-16, Arizona sits in a playoff spot in third place in the Pacific Division. The team is led offensively by 20-year old rookie Max Domi and is also receiving strong scoring from Anthony Duclair and Tobias Rieder. With the group already at the NHL level and 2015 #3 overall pick Dylan Strome spending the season in Canadian juniors but on the way soon, the team is a bit of a contrast to the Hurricanes in that their rebuild. Whereas the Hurricanes strength is its group of young defensemen, at least currently is being led by talented young forwards.
For the Hurricanes this game is all about seeing if Saturday was the start of a trend or just another positive blip.
Here is ‘what I’m watching’ for Sunday’s game:
1) Start of a trend?
In down times and with their backs against the wall, the Hurricanes have a couple times mustered good efforts and wins to bounce back. That is better than not, but only being able to reach a higher level when the wheels are about to come off is still a recipe for much more losing than winning. Sunday offers a chance to use a good effort as a base for a more permanent trend and foundation to their play.
Can the Hurricanes take 1 of these ‘response’ games and convert the effort level to a ‘consistent style of play?’
2) Noah Hanifin/Jaccob Slavin
With 2 young up and comers playing together, this duo is my favorite to track right now. I especially like the entry point and direction for Slavin who is only 6 games deep in his NHL career. I raved about him a bit in my game recap from Saturday which is HERE. He is still learning. On Saturday, he had 2 times where he got up a bit too far and maybe did not read the situation soon enough and had players get behind him. But for me he is also the player who is tracking or at least trying to track the fastest toward what the Canes blue line needs to become. It is not about becoming okay and decent. It is about driving the play, the offense and the wins. And in that regard, I think Slavin is actually tracking ahead of both Hanifin and Pesce who are up on him in games. This is not a slight to either of those players who have been impressive in their own right and are still incredibly early in their development. Rather, it is a compliment to Slavin’s early play and more so just good stubbornness bringing his game to the rink every game regardless of what level he is playing at.
He has me on the edge of my seat more than any other Hurricanes player right now. If you still have Saturday’s game sitting on your DVR, check out his play with about 9:30 left in the second period. He received a pass in flight in the neutral zone. Beat a defender with a nifty inside move at the blue line. Fed the puck across for a forward scoring chance on the rush. Stuck around the front of the net after joining the attack. Finally recovered literally from the top of the offensive zone crease to defend in his own end and push an attacking forward to the outside for a low probability shot. THAT, not buttoned down serviceable defense, is the direction that the young group of defensemen needs to go.
Noah Hanifin is gradually taking more minutes and more responsibilities (power play) and not missing a beat in the process. He still has his learning moments just like the others, but I get the sense that he is truly settling in. He had a freewheeling Joni Pitkanen-ish puck carry on Saturday too, so just maybe Slavin will also trigger Hanifin to start opening things up a bit more and growing more patient/comfortable playing with the puck on his stick.
3) Jeff Skinner
Saturday’s win feels 10X better than some of the Canes recent losses, but if you sort through all of the details, the simple ability to finish significantly impacted the optics. Skinner has had a decent number of games recently with even more chances to finish but just has not been able to do so consistently. If he misses on those to chances, this game quickly converts to a frustrating 2-1 loss in which the Canes maybe deserved better.
A couple things are very encouraging about the Skinner goal outburst. First and foremost, he did not create scoring chances by straying from his improved 2015-16 2-way play. Both goals were within the context of the regular offense and not from cheating. Second, both goals were incredibly skilled plays first handing the puck quickly from forehand to backhand back to forehand and later batting a puck out of midair. Hopefully the skill level on the goals is sign that he is about to find a rhythm and go on 1 of his runs that sees him lead the offense for a couple weeks.
4) Eric Staal
Hidden amidst a good game for the team was another night of struggles and frustration for Eric Staal. Despite the win, he managed 2 minor penalties, a waived off goal on a debatable goalie interference and a miss on a wide open net when the game was still tied 2-2 in the third period. The last miss had him standing in the face-off circle staring up to either the rafters or the hockey gods for a couple seconds while play continued without him. The guy seems to have the weight of the world on him right now and is worth watching.
5) A look at the other side
I am also curious to see how a good young team like Arizona looks both against our young defense and just in general. The forward part of the Canes rebuilding is very much a work in process, so Arizona offers a benchmark/target of sorts.
The puck drops a few minutes after 5pm at PNC Arena.