I wrote in some detail about the Canes disjointed January schedule (at least for the first 3 weeks) that sees even home games feel like road games because of such short stops. You can find that post HERE. This weeks sees the Canes come off a Saturday home game and get the minimum 1 travel day to play in Edmonton in Monday followed by another logical game out that way on Wednesday. Again with the minimum 1 travel day, the Canes play at home on Friday but immediately hop another plane to play the second half of a back-to-back in Columbus on Saturday.
I think sometimes fans underestimate some of the travel challenges of NHL players since it is part of what they do for a living, but imagine the physical adjustment going from east to west and then being asked to immediately perform physically at the top of your game and then be asked to do the same thing on Friday barely after you return. Oh, and then you get to fly again on Friday night late and try to muster a top-tier physical effort 1 more time on Saturday night.
Shorter version: The 4 games in 6 days that the Canes have this week is a tough set schedule-wise, but in the NHL excuses count for nothing.
As for tonight’s opponent, the Edmonton Oilers enter tonight’s game closer to the bottom of the standings than the top just like the Hurricanes. The Oilers are different in that they have struggled of late going 2-6-1 whereas the Hurricanes are playing some of their best hockey of the season. But hidden in the Oilers struggles is the fact that they are a pretty good team at home. Even during the 2-6-1 stretch, the team is 2-2 at home, and for the season the Oilers are an impressive 11-7-1. So just like any other NHL game, this is no gimme. The Canes need to bring another of the solid performances that they have rolled out pretty consistently of late if they want to win.
What I am watching for Monday night’s game includes:
1) The lineup at forward
We will not know anything for certain at least until the morning skate (which is actually afternoon Raleigh time), but with the Canes recalling Brock McGinn yesterday best guess is that the team will be without Phil DiGiuseppe who flew hard into the end boards in a puck battle on Saturday and left the game not to return. I wrote last night about the possibilities for how/where McGinn could slot into the lineup in my daily post for this morning. You can find that HERE.
I am torn on whether it is best to just put McGinn into DiGiuseppe’s slot with Rask and Skinner or instead to try to use this as a way to also jump start Elias Lindholm by reuniting him with Skinner and Rask. This would see McGinn with Kris Versteeg and Eric Staal. That line was dynamite for McGinn’s debut but fizzled a bit after that.
Regardless, a single injury to a third line player does not seem like much, but the Canes were playing their best hockey with a consistent run of 4 lines that were all contributing. Keeping momentum intact likely with a new player inserted is key to continuing the current run.
2) Slightly different roles on the road
On the road, Bill Peters will have less ability to get the match ups he wants. Edmonton will likely steer their scorers away from Jordan Staal’s line on home ice. This probably puts Jordan’s line matched up against more of a checking line. In this role, just holding the other team down is not as big of a contribution. Ideally the group steps up the scoring with the other Canes’ lines seeing the Edmonton fire power. It also likely sees Rask’s line tasked some with trying to stop some of Edmonton’s offensive power. This is especially significant if McGinn draws onto this line. On paper this group is the Canes weakest defensively, but Jeff Skinner has been a much better 2-way player in 2015-16, Rask is positionally solid and makes that line go defensively and hopefully McGinn can hold up his end of the deal (if it is not Lindholm instead).
3) More from the kids on D
Suddenly nearing the midway point of the season, the young Canes defensemen are still very early in their development and will hopefully not hit their ceiling for another couple years, but they have amassed some experience and know what they are getting into in the NHL game at this point. I think this is a very interesting time of the season for the trio of Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin and Noah Hanifin who played college hockey last season. All 3 are nearing the point where they have played the equivalent of a full college season in terms of games but have done it in a bit of a compressed schedule. But they are only halfway finished with the much longer NHL season. Will these players hit a wall physically that makes it a challenge even to sustain their current levels of play? Or will they leverage the experience that they now have and take the next step? I have written many times that the ultimate goal of these players is not just to be capable of playing at the NHL level. The ultimate goal is for this group to drive the wins and losses (with more wins than losses obviously) for the Canes. On the one hand, it is important to be patient and not expect too much from NHL players especially defensemen. On the other hand, the NHL is very much a game for young players and skaters and that is exactly what this group of 3 plus Justin Faulk is.
The future is now with this group entering the lineup ahead of schedule. Is it possible that the time frame for them to start driving the bus is also significantly accelerated? Jaccob Slavin has been surging of late and getting rewarded with a top 4 role and more minutes. Brett Pesce has quietly started to do more offensively after initially building a defensive foundation. Noah Hanifin is driving the entries on the power play.
Special players do not always adhere to logical schedules. Is it possible that the ball is on the tee for this group to do something special in the second half of the 2015-16 season? Even if not, this continues to be my favorite story to track this season.
The puck drops at about 9pm local time with John, Tripp and Michelle on Fox Sports.