After a solid 4-0-1 sprint before the Christmas break and 4 off days for their hard work, the Hurricanes are back at it with a great measuring stick game against the Pittsburgh Penguins who are the defending Stanley Cup Champions. With the surging Columbus Blue Jackets surging with an amazing 12-game winning streak, the Pens are actually in second place in the Metropolitan Division (heading into Tuesday night’s action) which is currently the NHL’s best. But the Pens 49 points would put them first in any other division (tied with Chicago in the Central).
The game represents a good measuring stick on the road for a Hurricanes team that has become better as the season has progressed. More than any kind of interesting comparison point, the game is very simply a battle for 2 points that the Hurricanes need to keep climbing and catch the middle of the Metropolitan Division that is currently positioned to take both Eastern Conference wild card slots.
The Canes also get the small advantage of resting on Tuesday while the Pens played in New Jersey and traveled though if they think that alone will be enough to collect a win, they are likely to be disappointed.
(All records from before Tuesday’s games.)
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Pittsburgh Penguins
1) Defending the best
Despite missing 6 games with a concussion, Sidney Crosby leads the NHL in goal scoring with 24 goals and has built a 4-goal lead over rookie phenom Patrik Laine, Los Angeles’ Jeff Carter and Boston’s David Pastrnak. He along with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are all averaging about a point per game and lead an offense that is first in the NHL in goal scoring and fifth in the NHL in power play proficiency.
Especially on the road where it will be challenging for Coach Bill Peters’ to get match ups he desires, the game represents a tremendous test for the Hurricanes’ ability to be solid defensively from the top to the bottom of their lineup.
2) The blue line and Jordan Staal
I will also be watching to see what Peters does with the Hurricanes blue line. Friday’s finale before the break saw the Canes start with a familiar set of Slavin/Pesce, Hainsey/Faulk and Hanifin/Tennyson, but by the midway point of the game, Peters had completely revamped the defense possibly just with the hope jolting a sluggish team to a higher gear. The second half of the game featured a new first pairing (same as the season started) of Slavin/Faulk followed by Hainsey/Tennyson and Hanifin/Pesce. It will be interesting to see if these pairings hold and also how they hold up against an elite offense. It will also be interesting to see if Peters tries to match Crosby with Jordan Staal as best he can on the road or if he mostly just rolls lines and counts on everyone.
2B) The reconfigured blue line minus Justin Faulk
ADDED MID-DAY WEDNESDAY AFTER LEARNING OF JUSTIN FAULK’S INJURY
Between the holiday weekend and a really tough night/day at the Karash household Tuesday with a nasty stomach flu sweeping the house, I just learned up Faulk’s injury and absence Wednesday mid-day. Playing minus Justin Faulk who has been rounding into form recently is obviously a big loss. The biggest upshot could be Hanifin/Tennyson, who have generally been good, stepping up from a somewhat sheltered third pairing role to playing in the top 4 just in time to see a run of 3 teams with elite scoring lines.
3) A chance to rise up and declare a bigger place in the hockey world
As of right now, the Hurricanes are a team that is not a playoff team and has not been a playoff team in a long time. Though the team improved for the 2015-16 season and is on track to better that mark again in 2016-17, until the team pushes up into the playoffs again, they will continue to be viewed as 1 of the lesser teams. At the same time, the path back to the playoffs will not come only from winning the somewhat easier games that the team is supposed to win. It will require finding a higher gear much like the Blue Jackets are doing with their 12-game winning streak. That being the case, games like Wednesday night in Pittsburgh represent statement games that offer the ability to show that the team can play at the higher level necessary to make the playoffs and match up against the league’s best.
On Wednesday night against the Penguins, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can stand up to the best and match them not just try to hang around and hope to get lucky late.
The puck drops at about 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.