With a solid December and a pretty decent start to January, the Carolina Hurricanes can suddenly see and reach the pack of teams in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings. I broke the 16 teams into groups in a post a few days ago which you can find HERE.
Tonight in Raleigh the Hurricanes play 1 of those 4-point games against the Pittsburgh Penguins who are 1 of the teams in the big pack of teams sitting above the Hurricanes right now. There would be nothing better than climbing up another rung of the ladder by grabbing the legs of the Penguins and pulling them down a step. The teams meet twice this week (second meeting is on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh), so there is the potential to gain significant ground on at least 1 of the teams that the Hurricanes are chasing.
The Penguins come in playing decent hockey with a 3-1-1 mark in their last 5 games but still struggling to find a rhythm that puts them near the top of the Eastern Conference which they correctly or incorrectly believe is their rightful place. In the teams’ only meeting so far in 2015-16, the Hurricanes won 2-1 in Pittsburgh on December 19.
Here is what I will be watching for an important game ON JANUARY 12! for the Hurricanes:
1) Can team find higher energy level?
The Hurricanes had a productive week last week going 2-1-1 with a frequent flier mile special type of schedule, but the play was choppy and sporadic at best and mostly against weaker competition. I chalk at least part of the sloppiness up to fatigue. At some point the Canes need to refind the higher gear both physically and in terms of quality of play that propelled them through an 8-5-1 December with some headline wins. With 2 days off, is it reasonable to expect a fresher Hurricanes team that can find that higher gear again?
2) Who plays?
All of Victor Rask, Phil DiGiuseppe and Nathan Gerbe are skating and close to return, but none are certain for Tuesday’s game. We might get some news exiting the morning skate at lunch time. Biggest would be to get Victor Rask back. He balances and strengthens the Canes top 3 lines down the middle. It is a little bit easier to get by with Rask at home where Peters can more carefully pick match ups, but the team is still better with him in the lineup.
3) Best against best
In these kinds of games and especially against the Penguins, it often comes down to whose best players win against the other team’s best. Jordan Staal is playing arguably his best hockey in a Carolina Hurricanes uniform right now. There is no need for him to rise to a higher level – just simply keep doing what he has been doing for at least a few weeks now. Justin Faulk obviously sees a ton of ice time against the Pens elite forwards. He needs to have 1 of his better games defensively. Finally, Eric Staal’s line needs to be going. If they can control play and keep the puck like Jordan Staal’s line is doing, it is a recipe for playing far more offense than defense and having the majority of the time and chances in their offensive zone. Shorter version – The Canes stars need to be better than the Pens stars.
4) Who scores first?
The first goal is huge. Getting off to a good start is 1 thing, but putting up the first marker to relieve pressure and put the other team on its heels can change how the rest of the game goes. Can a role player step up and score a huge goal to get the Canes started? Or will 1 of the leaders lead on the score sheet early.
5) Enjoy what we have
We have a hockey game that matters at PNC Arena on January 12. That is far later into the season than we made it last season. With that comes some anxiety and maybe even a little bit of fear based on how this type of game has treated us over the past few years. But with it also should come an appreciation and enjoyment for the fact that we even have a game like this.
The puck drops at about 7:07pm at PNC Arena.