The Hurricanes 3-game holiday week gauntlet run through 3 of the 4 Stanley Cup Finalists for 2015 and 2016 wraps up on New Year’s Eve in Tampa. The play has been strong so far with the Hurricanes generally playing well in both games. The Hurricanes significantly outplayed the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Wednesday only to have a relatively small number of miscues and opportunistic Pens’ scoring unjustly hand them a loss. Friday in Raleigh, the Hurricanes rebounded with a strong win against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Canes again attacked offensively and leaned on a stellar performance by Cam Ward to cover up a few defensive blemishes here and there.
Saturday’s opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning, are generally considered to be among the NHL’s top tier of team’s, but the Bolts have yet to put it all together in 2016-17 and are sitting near the playoff cut line in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning are also minus captain Steven Stamkos who is out long-term with an injury. But the team is still deep and talented offensively and a formidable opponent.
‘What I’m watching for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Tampa Bay Lightning
1) Ability to muster same pace in back-to-back role reversal
Both of the prior games this week featured the Canes playing after a day off against an opponent who had played and traveled the night before. The Hurricanes are capable of playing fast and attacking, but there was also potentially an element of schedule advantage at play. Saturday’s game features a Canes team that had to play and travel up against an opponent who rested the night before. As such, I will be watching early to see if the Hurricanes can continue their run of being the quicker, faster and more aggressive team.
2) The goalie position
As of writing this, I have not seen official word on who will man the Hurricanes’ net tonight, but there has been talk that Eddie Lack might finally see the ice again. He has not played in game action since November 10, so it is impossible to say what to expect. At the same time, Peters general rule of thumb is to just keep riding Ward. With Ward playing incredibly well last night and with 2 days off after today, I would not be shocked if there was an early afternoon conversation between Ward and Peters at least considering running him out for another game.
3) The defense
Lost in the fact that the team has had a fairly successful week is the fact that the defense has taken a step backwards in terms of soundness. Just Faulk’s absence is obviously part of this story. The Pens game was not horrible in terms of volume of breakdowns, but it was in fact miscues that opened the door a couple times for the Pens who used them to opportunistically score and stay in a game that they were losing mightily in terms of possession and control. The game was decided when Matt Tennyson who has been solid defensively since his recall offered a rare mistake that led to a jail break rush from the blue line in and a goal. Jaccob Slavin was uncharacteristically sloppy with the puck in his own end on Friday. Noah Hanifin has had a couple of the ‘sorting things out’ struggles that are still the area of his game that needs work. And Klas Dahlbeck and Ryan Murphy are both trying to play their way back up to NHL speed. Ward’s phenomenal and probably underrated (even with first star) effort on Friday erased almost everything. On the road where the Lightning can try to exploit match ups and also in the second half of a back-to-back against a rested team, I will be watching to see if the Canes blue line can solidify things and play the kind of sound road game that keeps them in the game.
With a win the Canes will pull to within 3 points of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference but importantly with 2 games in hands. My math says that 2 games in hand is worth 2-3 points, so I say with a win the Hurricanes enter 2017 basically tied for a playoff spot. Win or lose and math aside, the Hurricanes will enter 2017 in the best position for the start of the new year that they have been in in a long time.
An early HAPPY NEW YEAR CANES FANS!
2017 is going to be our year!
The puck drops at about 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.