After a stellar run of 4 wins at home in just 6 days, the Carolina Hurricanes will try to take their winning ways on the road starting on Tuesday in Columbus.
The winning run was good enough to vault the Hurricanes into eighth in the Eastern Conference which is good enough for a playoff spot. Check out yesterday’s first of hopefully many weekly check ins on the Hurricanes playoff prospects.
At the most basic level, the Hurricanes are in a very good place right now when considering place in the standings and positive momentum. But the near-term schedule is challenging with 3 of 4 games on the road and all 4 of those games against top-notch opponents (Columbus twice and also Pittsburgh and Washington). I mapped out playoff push targets for the 4-game gauntlet that starts today and also through the end of February in an article posted today.
As exciting as the Hurricanes 4-game home winning streak was with victorious tallies of 4-3, 5-3, 5-2 and 7-4, the Hurricanes got away from things defensively. The team generated offensive chances by the bucket but also gave them up in generous quantities. As much as I enjoy gun-slinging, wild scoring shootout wins, I fear that the formula will not work on the road against strong competition and I wrote as much HERE in today’s Daily Cup of Joe.
Today’s opponent is the Columbus Blue Jackets who are interesting in a couple regards. First, despite coming back to Earth after a spectacular 16-game winning streak, the Jackets are still among the best in the league. Second, after a win at home last Tuesday, this Tuesday is the middle of 3 games that sees the Hurricanes return to Columbus in only 5 days. Finally, if you adjust standings for games played, the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets could be the #1 versus #8 match up in the 2017 NHL playoffs (though Washington is now up on Columbus).
‘What I’m watching’ style preview
Against that backdrop, here is what I’m watching for Tuesday’s match up between the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets.
1) Same or different on the road?
At home last Tuesday, the Hurricanes matched up fairly well with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets had their fair share of offensive zone time and were noticeably diligent at getting pucks to the front of the net with a ton of traffic there. But the Hurricanes also had runs where they were able to win pucks in the defensive zone and transition quickly to a skating game that leveraged their speed to the tune of offensive zone time and scoring chances.
With Tortorella dictating match ups at home, I will be watching closely to see if his version of the who plays against whom tilts the game to Columbus’ advantage.
2) Seeking a higher gear defensively especially back on the road
As noted above, I am skeptical that consistently putting up 5-7 goals and storming to a win regardless of defensive play and goaltending is long-term repeatable. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe talks about this in more detail, but the short version is that I will be watching closely to see if the current line combinations can find a higher gear, if the full bore attacking or if Coach Bill Peters will need to make adjustments in game to shore things up defensively.
Compounding the Hurricanes struggles defensively even at home is full season track record that has been spotty on the road. The Hurricanes are a meager 6-11-6 on the road largely due to inconsistency on the defensive side of the puck and other coaches’ ability to exploit match ups to the tune of scoring. The spotlight is on Hainsey/Faulk and also Hanifin/Tennyson on the blue line, and the forwards in total need to do a better job of understanding who they are on the ice against and making risk/reward decisions accordingly.
The first match up between these 2 teams was not a good 1 for goalies. Cam Ward played arguably his worst game in January letting in a couple questionable goals on the way to allowing 3 goals on 27 shots. Fortunately for the Hurricanes, Vezina candidate Sergei Bobrovsky was out due to illness, and young backup Anton Forsberg in the first game after the departure of Curtis McElhinney had an even tougher night that Ward seeing a couple shots go through him and into the net. The Hurricanes can expect a tougher challenge on Tuesday against Bobrovsky, and I will be watching closely to see if workhorse Cam Ward making his 20th consecutive start can match him.
4) Continued leadership
The Hurricanes strong play of late has featured a surge from depth players with Brock McGinn playing lights out and winning the third star in the entire NHL for last week, but it has also been heavy on leadership from the team’s top players. We are officially entering the grind of a long NHL season. I will be watching to see if, especially on the road where match ups might not be what they prefer, the Hurricanes leaders can still rise up.
The puck drops a little bit after 7pm on Fox Sports South with John, Tripp and Mike in what could be a first round playoff match up. How cool is that?