Only 5 days ago, the Hurricanes were heading on the road on the back of a feel good 4-game home winning streak. Before Tuesday’s road game, I wrote an ominous post entitled “Readying for the road – Are fun wins hiding a growing problem on defense?” Little did I know that I was foretelling doom for the first 2 games of the week.
Only 4 days ago, the Hurricanes had a rough night losing 4-1 in Columbus. Little did Canes fans know at the time that the loss would actually be by far the better of 2 outings before Saturday’s return to Columbus.
The Hurricanes are coming off an ugly 7-1 loss to the Penguins that saw the team actually start well but not get rewarded. The Penguins grew stronger. The Canes faded a bit and completely unraveled in the second half of the game. The ugliness included Ward struggling with rebound control and inability to track/find the puck. The ugliness also included loose play defensively and in terms of execution handling the puck in their own end. And finally, the game included 3 frustration penalties from veterans (2 from Skinner and 1 from Ward).
I think it is fair to say that adversity has reached its highest level for the 2016-17 season.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Hurricanes against the Columbus Blue Jackets
Saturday’s game is 1 where it is not so much about tactical adjustments as it is about seeing how the team responds to Friday’s events, and that features heavily in what I will be watching on Saturday evening.
1) How do the leaders respond?
The team was visibly frustrated in Friday’s 7-1 loss. Does it channel that energy and use it for an advantage in terms of intensity, energy level and the good kind of desperation? Or are they a fragile bunch such that a couple bad bounces can tip them back into meltdown mode like Friday night?
I will be looking for leaders to lead out of the gate. And if things do not go the Canes’ way early, I will be watching even more closely to see how the team’s leaders handle it.
2) Attention to detail defensively
Per the post referenced above, somewhere along the way to attacking and scoring more, the team has become looser and looser defensively. A pretty big round of it was covered up by a ton of scoring and fun home wins, but it came back to bite the team mightily this week. Winning 7-4 is fun, but needing 5 or more to win is not sustainable. The Hurricanes need to get back to playing a solid brand of 2-way hockey that takes care of the puck in their own end, thwarts speed in the neutral zone, competes in the defensive zone and fights for space and position in front of their own net.
All signs point to a Michael Leighton start on Saturday night. If that happens, it will break Ward’ run of 21 consecutive starts dating back to Leighton’s last NHL start on December 3 against the Ranger. He played twice this week for the Checkers. Hopefully that was enough of a tune up to build confidence and shake off any rust. He steps into the spotlight at a time when the Hurricanes really need at least a decent effort to give them a chance.
January 21 is too early to use the term “must win,” but I think it is fair to say that this game does carry added significance with the Hurricanes battling a heavy dose of adversity and trying to cut a losing streak short at 2 before things slip too far in the wrong direction.
I rarely make single game predictions, and Satudays’ game feels like it could any of 3-4 wildly different directions, but my hunch says that Michael Leighton starts and has a huge game and that the team in total also responds to at a minimum claim an OTL point.
Important: The game is an odd 5pm start, so plan your day or set your DVR accordingly. The game is on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.