On Monday, I broke down most of the next two months of schedule. Tuesday’s home match up against the Washington Capitals is the second of eight games against higher-end competition. The Canes see the division-leading Caps three times in 11 days and also face-off against the division-leading Lightning, the defending champion Pens and the Bruins before finishing up against the Flames.
A theme in Monday’s article and also a few Canes-centric conversations in the past few days is “not giving back” what was gained in December. The Hurricanes do not need to push up into a playoff slot in the next two weeks, but as the season progresses, they cannot afford to continuously do one step forward followed by one step back. Last March’s impressive surge that was still not enough shows just how hard it is to make up ground during the late-season grind that is March and April.
So based on that, I think Tuesday’s game against the Washington Capitals is bigger than most might think. A win very quickly cuts short a losing streak at a single game, nets an early home win early in the challenging stretch of schedule and also sets a precedent for what the team must do to beat good hockey teams over the next couple weeks.
Against that backdrop, here is my watch list for tonight’s game…
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Washington Capitals
1) Urgency and intensity
Of late, the young Hurricanes team has shown a greater ability to push and push and push more to make productive nights when things do not come easy. That mindset and the team’s ability to make it part of their every game effort could, more than any other factor, determine the fate of the 2017-18 season. With its increasing skill level, the team has shown an ability to easily seize and win games, but the key will be ‘finding a way’ often enough on the other nights such that it is not always one step forward, one step back.
On home ice against a very good hockey team and coming off of a loss and with a couple days off to recharge, I will be watching closely to see if the Hurricanes can bring the resolve and intensity level that gives them the best chance possible on good nights but more importantly only lesser nights.
2) Attention to detail defensively
As was the case a few times in 2016-17, the Hurricanes started a win streak winning the right way and then reeled off a couple more wins despite a decrease in level of play. I thought Cam Ward’s play made the Hurricanes defense look better than it was during the three-game home winning streak. Relying too much on the goalie to bail the skaters out is not a great formula for repeatable winning especially against good teams who are sound defensively and have offensive weapons who can capitalize on miscues.
On Tuesday night, I will be watching to see if the team can get back to a sounder level of play defensively. The Slavin/Pesce pairing has been solid of late after a bit of a lull a few weeks earlier, so they just need to stay on track. Dahlbeck/Faulk had a really rough outing in Saturday’s loss after a run of pretty good hockey prior. We will not know until the morning skate (or possibly later) if Saturday’s game will be enough to get Fleury back in the lineup, but regardless, Faulk’s pairing needs to be better against a Capitals team that is still fairly deep offensively. Similarly, Hanifin/van Riemsdyk must be steady.
3) Trying to put it all together offensively
It has been a bit sporadic, but one positive recent development has been the team’s expanding scoring. McGinn/Ryan/Lindholm had a short run as the team’s best line offensively. Aho/Staal/Teravainen found at least a short burst after an extended quiet period, especially for Teravainen. Lucas Wallmark scored in his first game at the NHL level in 2017-18. Justin Faulk recently broke through with a two-goal game. Jeff Skinner has yet to catch fire, but he is due for his usually mid-season scoring burst. The power play has still been up and down, but of late has at least had some ups. Especially against good teams, scoring depth helps tremendously in finding enough goals even while certain lines trend up and down.
Against the Capitals, I will be watching to see if the team can get multiple things working at the same time such that a well-timed scoring outburst can fuel winning hockey during the tough stretch of schedule over the next two weeks.
4) Lucas Wallmark
It sounds like Marcus Kruger might be ready for Tuesday’s game, so this could quickly become a moot point if Kruger replaces Wallmark in the lineup, but my hope is that Wallmark gets a chance to build off of his reasonably strong debut.
He had a good 2017-18 debut. What’s not to like about a goal, especially when it came from spending a ton of time parked in the slot where goals happen. I have written a few times about my mixed feelings about having a fourth line that is too limited in terms of offensive production. Last week, I fortuitously wrote a well-timed article just before Wallmark’s recall discussing the potential to improve scoring depth without necessarily giving up much defensively and possibly even improving the penalty kill.
As noted above, Wallmark had a decent debut with his goal being the highlight. He logged ice time with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen and did not look out of place doing it. But at the end of the day, he is still early in the process of earning enough trust from Bill Peters such that Peters will consider deviating from plan A which was to build a fourth line that above all else he could trust.
To stay in the lineup and alter Peters’ thinking, Wallmark will need to be the best of Derek Ryan and Victor Rask. He needs to prove capable of providing above average depth scoring ideally with a weighting in favor of goals over assists, and he needs to be consistently sound in terms of positioning and decision-making. If the offense is not there, Wallmark is not really an upgrade to veteran Marcus Kruger. If the offense is there but comes with too many defensive lapses, it just is not worth it relative to Peters’ plan A of safe and sound above all else for the fourth line.
So on Tuesday, I will be watching Lucas Wallmark closely. Despite being somewhat limited in terms of quickness and speed, can Wallmark channel his inner Rask and be sound defensively anyway? Can he at the same time either produce or at least show signs to suggest that he could provide a meaningful scoring boost? And along the way, I will be watching to see how Peters uses Wallmark and how much he trusts him as measured by ice time, match ups and line mates.
The puck drops at 7:07pm at PNC Arena.