With Friday’s 2-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Hurricanes are already assured a successful holiday week with a minimum 2-1 record. But still starting Saturday one point out of a playoff spot (tied if you adjust for games played), now is the time to ride momentum not take a deep breath and let off the gas. A key element in many playoff runs is an extended winning run when things are going well such that when the season inevitably hits another tough stretch, there is some margin for error.
The St. Louis Blues come into the game firmly in a playoff spot in the Western Conference but also sputtering a bit with a 3-7 record in their past 10 games. The Blues bring a decent amount of the heavy Western Conference game that has at times knocked the Hurricanes off stride.
But with the run of four straight wins, this game is not about the opponent but rather just continuing on the current path for the Hurricanes.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the St. Louis Blues
1) Scott Darling
If Scott Darling receives his first start since the debacle in Toronto on December 19, the game is also an important one in terms of the path forward at the goalie position. Cam Ward has taken the reins as the starter for the time being and he should be fresh physically from playing the first couple months of the season as a backup, but at a minimum Darling must be able to spell Ward and give the team a chance to earn points in those games. And ideally, especially looking out long-term, Darling needs to find some kind of reset that helps him find the game that made him one of the top goalies on the market this summer.
The game sets up nicely as one that the Hurricanes can afford to lose maybe, but each and every game that Darling plays in a backup role significantly represents a chance to right the ship. If Darling does start on Saturday, I will be watching closely to see how he looks after a 10-day layoff that I voted for a few weeks back. The game also represents the kind of game in which it would be great to see the team dig down and find a higher gear to help Darling join the winning run.
2) Continued balance offensively
The Hurricanes scored only twice against the Penguins, but there continue to be signs that the team is beginning to find more balance offensively. Offensively, I thought that McGinn/Ryan/Lindholm was the team’s best line in Friday’s win. Led by incredibly strong play by Jordan Staal right now, the TSA line has found another burst of scoring. Justin Faulk finally broke through with a couple goals earlier this week. Jeff Skinner seems due to find his next burst of goals. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if the current trend upward offensively can continue.
3) Jordan Staal
In the middle of a season that has generally been a good one overall, Jordan Staal has found yet another higher gear. He was absolutely phenomenal in Friday’s win neutralizing a couple NHL greats and driving play nearly every time he was on the ice. In a back-to-back scenario, the team could use another strong game from Staal that tilts the ice into the offensive zone and gives his line mates a chance to generate offense. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if Staal can pick up where he left off on Friday night in Raleigh.
4) ‘Find a way’ mentality if necessary
During the recent run, the Hurricanes have won hockey games by playing good hockey and simply being the better team. That is how it needs to be for the majority of games to build a winning streak. But there can also be an element of just finding a way to win or at least collect points on a lesser night. In an ideal world, the Hurricanes will just continue being better than the opponent on Saturday night in St. Louis. But with a back-to-back scenario with travel halfway across the country with Darling trying to rebound, the game could be the next one when things do not come so easily. If that proves to be the case, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can carry over their swagger and confidence from the home wins and play with a ‘just find a way’ mentality that gives them a chance to be productive even on a lesser night.
The puck drops at 8pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.