Starting with a roster shake up that saw 3 AHL players recalled after horrible 5-1 loss to New Jersey in the first game in December on the 3rd of the month, the Carolina Hurricanes responded, rebounded and have since charted what has been an extended course higher. The team finished December with an 8-5-1 mark and has followed it up with a 3-1-2 start to February.
Wednesday night’s game in St. Louis has the potential to mark a couple huge firsts:
* A win would be the team’s first 4-game winning streak of the season.
* A win coupled with a New Jersey loss in regulation would put the Hurricanes tied with the Bruins and Devils for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot with 47 points. In the name of full disclosure, the Bruins will have 3 games in hand and the Penguins who would be 1 point behind the Hurricanes would have 2 games in hand. But to say that there a couple math disclaimers does not in any way diminish where the Carolina Hurricanes would be on January 14 past the halfway point of the season.
After a December that saw the Canes play their best hockey, I would characterize January thus far as more a great exhibition of scratching, clawing and finding a way. The team managed only a single goal in its first 2 games, but somehow parlayed that into 2 points points in the standings with 2-1 and 1-0 overtime losses. More recently, the Canes build leads but were shaky down the stretch needing overtime after losing 3-0 and 2-0 leads to Columbus and Pittsburgh in their 2 most recent games. But we are clearly at that point in the season when results trump formula, and the results have been very good.
The biggest challenge for the team right now is playing a very busy and travel-heavy stretch of schedule and trying to do so with some injury issues after being fairly healthy all season (except for the James Wisniewski event in game 1). Nathan Gerbe has been out for awhile, and Phil DiGiuseppe recently joined him. Victor Rask misssed both games last weekend. He returned on Tuesday but quietly logged only about 13 minutes of ice time which might indicate that he is not at 100% yet. The latest to get dinged up is Brett Pesce. He finished the Pittsburgh game but took a day off practice. He is another added to the list of players to check on from morning skate reports.
With that I get to my ‘what I’m watching’ style preview for tonight’s game in St. Louis:
1) The lineup and use of players at forward
In an important game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, Coach Bill Peters shortened the bench at forward and leaned heavily on 8 core players and even that was light on Victor Rask ice time. With a back-to-back set on tap, it will be interesting to see who is available and how much Bill Peters shortens the bench on Thursday if the game is close risking what he has for energy in the quick turnaround on Friday. With the same set of 6 defensemen playing through the extended run of winning hockey, losing Brett Pesce would also be a hit.
2) Someone to make plays offensively
It has been overshadowed by a couple decent outbursts, but the Canes offense has struggled a bit of late. Tuesday saw Elias Lindholm have arguably his best game of the season making 2 real good passing plays to set up goals. At a time when the goals are not coming easy, can someone rise up and make those 2-3 plays that win a hockey game? Jeff Skinner got on the score sheet on his finish of the Lindholm play in overtime. Could that jump start another goal scoring surge to carry his team to the all-star break? Can Eric Staal put the team on his back for a game or 2? Could Tuesday’s game be the beginning of a surge into the second half for Elias Lindholm? Can the power play which actually looked decent on Tuesday find a burst of goal scoring? The options are many, but at times like these it is often about someone rising up.
3) Continuing to find a way
Sitting where the Canes are in the standings and playing through a busy stretch of schedule with a few injuries to boot, right now is very much about continuing to what they have done over the past few weeks which is find a way, any way, to collect points in the standings on good nights or lesser nights.
Now really has that feeling of a time when the leaders need to lead. Jordan Staal has been playing his best hockey as a Carolina Hurricane. If I had to venture a guess, I think it is some combination of the top dogs in Eric Staal, Justin Faulk, Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner who need to lead the way over the next few weeks. With the rise in the standings also comes a bit more pressure that can take away the looseness of just playing and winning. Everyone needs to help, but I think that the top of the roster needs to lead the way over the next couple weeks.
The puck drops at about 8pm on Fox Sports (I think its the alternate tonight and the anxiety that comes with that).