After a disappointing home loss at home on Tuesday to end the 11-game points streak, the Hurricanes rebounded in fine fashion in St. Louis on Thursday night. The Hurricanes returned to the fast, attacking brand of hockey that is the core of their success recently. As one would expect, a good Blues team counterattacked, but the Hurricanes netted the 3 goals it usually takes to win (not counting the empty-netter) and gave up the 2 that is the defensive half of the winning formula. The win gets a tough week back to 1-1 with another tough opponent looming in Chicago tonight.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Hurricanes versus the Chicago Blackhawks
1) Skating, pace and intensity
After lackluster losses in Tampa on Saturday and at home against New Jersey on Tuesday, the Hurricanes returned to playing fast through the neutral zone and attacking north-south whenever possible. With Friday being the second half of a back-to-back, I will be watching early to see if the Canes can quickly find their skating legs and bring the pace that drives their scoring success and also supports their defense by getting the puck out of their own end and into the offensive zone. The back-to-back is the fairer variety with Chicago having also playing last night though they were at home and therefore did not have to travel.
In a normal scenario, the second half of a back-to-back with travel would go to the backup. But the Hurricanes are not operating a normal goalie rotation right now. Ward has not missed a start since December 3. With Eddie Lack on injured reserve with a concussion, Michael Leighton is again the backup. First, I will be watching to see if Peters has the guts to start Leighton, and if so, I will be watching anxiously to see if Leighton can get his feet under him early, help the team build the confidence in him to just play their game and possibly be the needed alternative in net especially for when the schedule gets really busy starting in late February. If Leighton does not get the start, I will be watching Ward to see how sharp he is. After a long run where stellar was the norm and the bad was still at least decent, Ward has been ‘iffy’ in the past couple weeks. He was due to fall a little bit from his peak, but the bigger question is whether he might burn out and fall in a bigger way under the heavy workload.
3) The blue line
I liked Faulk’s first game in the lineup after being out with a lower body injury. Instead of looking a step slow as can happen after a layoff, I thought he looked a step quicker. Might it be the case that some of his struggles were mobility-related due to the injury and that he is in fact ready to find a higher gear now that he is healthy? That would be great news. I continue to beat the drum that he is probably the single player with the greatest ability to boost the team’s second half fortunes. The greatest room for improvement is to win more on the road as I wrote recently. In addition, to the surprise of absolutely no one, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce were stellar in Thursday’s win. But the third pairing had a tough night . Early in the game, Noah Hanifin offered a couple potentially dangerous miscues. Then Ryan Murphy factored pretty directly in a a St. Louis goal when the Canes won a face-off but he failed to retrieve and keep the puck. I actually suggested the possibility of going with 2 fresh bodies in Dahlbeck and Tennyson. Tennyson had a couple rough games which contributed to his demotion to healthy scratch but could actually make a decent case for being the Hurricanes best third pairing defenseman so far this season. If he played with Tennyson, Dahlbeck could get a rare look on his natural left side. Regardless of what Peters selects from his personnel options, the Hurricanes will need to be solid from top to bottom defensively against a Blackhawks team that has some fire power and the ability to exploit weak defensive links on home ice.
4) Leaders rising up
We are quickly approaching that point in the season where every game is vitally important and that point in the season where the leaders need to rise up and lead the way to wins. The Canes’ leadership did exactly that on Thursday in St. Louis. Jordan Staal played a strong game and was involved in 2 scoring plays counting the empty-netter. Jeff Skinner scored a huge power play goal to break a long scoreless run by the power play for a game-winner. And Justin Faulk was assertive and solid in his return to the lineup. I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes get more of the same on Friday in Chicago.
The puck drops at 8:30pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike right about the time the wintry mix starts flying in Raleigh. Grab yourself some beverages, snacks and blankets and settle in for a big Canes game tonight.