Between the last game of the 3-game California road trip and the start of the 4-game (that became 3 when the Detroit Red Wings game was canceled due to ice conditions), I laid out what I thought the Hurricanes needed to do over the next month to push up into the playoff chase. You can check in on that blueprint HERE. The goal for the first chunk of 4 games at home was to go 3-1, so the Canes 2-0-1 record with 1 game postponed until later qualifies as a good start. Up next is a disjointed run of 5 games over the holidays that sees 2 sets of road/home back-to-backs with another road game in Pittsburgh next week. My blueprint said that the Canes needed to muster at least a 3-2 record in this next chunk of 5 games. With the quality of competition ratcheting up over the next 3 games, it would obviously be great for the Hurricanes to get off to a fast and productive start with a win in Buffalo on Thursday night.
The foe is a familiar 1 calendar-wise. Just last Saturday, the 2 teams met in a sluggish affair after both played and traveled the night before. The Hurricanes built a 1-0 lead and tried to hold on to lose the lead late in regulation. Fortunately, the Hurricanes were able to collect a 2-1 win in a shootout. You can find the game recap HERE.
With the odd cooling system malfunction and game cancellation on Monday, that game 5 days ago is the Hurricanes last game. The Sabres lost 4-3 to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday and enter with that 2-game losing streak with both losses coming in the post-game skill competition.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Buffalo Sabres
After a tough stretch of road games, the second defense pairing has looked better in the past 3 games on home ice. Justin Faulk in particular was front and center in the Hurricanes offensive outburst during the 3 home games. The team scored 12 goals, and Faulk had 2 goals and 2 assists.
But it really comes down to doing it on the road. How the Hurricanes fare with Justin Faulk on the ice at even strength is a Jekyl and Hyde from away from home versus at PNC Arena. At home where Coach Bill Peters can dictate match ups to a large degree, Faulk is a plus 8 in 11 games. Put simply, with Faulk on the ice, the Hurricanes are winning by nearly a goal per game. But on the road, Faulk is a horrid minus 19 in 17 games. Basically when Faulk is on the ice at even strength on the road, the team is getting killed. While I get the limitations of plus/minus as a be all, end all, measurement of performance, I do not think the number is far off the mark when I consider the level of play and volume of miscues by Faulk, often with Hainsey in tow, on the road.
If Cam Ward can stay on track, I really think that the play of Hainsey/Faulk on the road could be the single greatest deciding factor for how the rest of the 2016-17 season. The improvement of Hainsey/Faulk was point #1 in my recent post opining about what it would take for the Hurricanes to be in the playoff hunt come late March. We have clearly reached the point where opposing coaches are working to get their top scorers out against Hainsey/Faulk to exploit them. That must change for the Hurricanes to improve upon their meager 4-8-6 record and push up above the .500/treading water level and into the playoff chase.
2) Fresh or rusty?
The Hurricanes last game on Saturday was a sluggish affair. The Hurricanes (and the Sabres too for that matter) both exhibited signs of just not having it physically after playing the night before. The Hurricanes were originally scheduled to play again quickly on Monday to close out 3 games in 4 games before a couple-day rest. Instead, with Monday’s cancellation, the Hurricanes enter the game after a 4-day layoff.
Will the Hurricanes look rested, fresh and fast because of the time off? Or was 4 days too much such that the team could actually be a bit rusty after stepping out of the usual routine?
3) The forward lines and Jordan Staal
By far, the single biggest difference between the Hurricanes road team that will take the ice on Thursday night in Buffalo and the Hurricanes road team that struggled to a 1-3-2 record over the past 6 road games is Jordan Staal. He was out for a concussion during those 6 games and it showed. He is obviously back in the lineup now which helps at home but is even more critical on the road where Jordan Staal’s elite 2-way play is used to balance out the lineup defensively.
More specifically, prior to his injury, Peters had taken to building a more balanced lineup for the road that saw him separate Slavin/Pesce and Staal’s line. The basic idea is that the opposing team will try to match their top scorers against someone other than Slavin/Pesce and that Staal provides a high level of support at forward.
As of Saturday, the Hurricanes lines were mostly Skinner/Rask/Ryan, McGinn/Staal/Lindholm, Aho/Teravainen/Stempniak, Nordstrom/McClement/Stalberg. Especially after 5 days off and with 3 more off days following a quick burst of 2 games, my hunch is that Peters will shuffle things a bit possibly in game and lean heavily on a smaller set of forwards. My hunch is that Peters will look to gird the Staal line defensively which might mean Nordstrom stepping up into McGinn’s slot.
Regardless, Peters’ mixing/matching scheme that uses Staal to support Hainsey/Faulk is likely to return, and whether or not that is successful on Thursday night in Buffalo could have a significant impact on the game’s outcome. In addition, the game is a medium-level test to see if the Canes can right the ship in this regard before road games next week against more deadly offensive teams in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.
The puck drops at about 7pm on Fox Sports Carolina Carolinas with the crew of John, Tripp and Mike who have hopefully recovered from the wild non-game broadcast on Monday that saw Mike eating nachos and pizza and Tripp jamming his face into a birthday cake not once but twice.