After closing out the five-game home stand strong with two wins to finish 5-2, the first road game and also first of five before the break was a dud in a 2-0 loss to the Capitals on Monday.
The concern right now is that this team is out of gas about 10 days early. The Canes had nothing but James Reimer in the latter half of Saturday’s win over Los Angeles, and once down 2-0 had trouble finding a higher gear on Monday. Hopefully two days off will help because the team is now on the tracks for a quick run of four games in six days before the break arrives.
Thursday’s opponent is no help either. The Canes face a Columbus team that is playing well right now and has climbed the ladder to just below the Canes in the playoff chase. The Blue Jackets have won four their last five and have points in 16 of 18 games for an impressive 12-2-4 run. On top of that, the Blue Jackets’ aggressive straight line style of play that tries to eliminate transition play has been challenging for the Canes.
But more so than the opponent, this game is about the Hurricanes finding a higher gear again. Can a couple days off be enough to recharge? Is it a matter of just digging down and leveraging determination to get through four more? Can a goalie steal a win? At least based on the past two games, the team has entered the ‘just find a way’ zone that happens here and there during the course of a long 82-game NHL season.
My watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Columbus Blue Jackets
1) Energy level
The team has looked to be out of gas in consecutive outings which is a big concern with four games remaining before the All-Star break. First and foremost, I will be watching to see if the team can find a higher gear again.
2) Ability/willingness to grind a bit against Columbus
A bit like the slower version of the Capitals (once they intentionally decided to stop playing the Hurricanes in the middle of the rink), the Blue Jackets are very good at forcing step-wise movement through the neutral zone to slow transition and also pushing the game to the walls. As much as possible, the Hurricanes want to play fast through the middle of the rink, but success against the Blue Jackets also requires a willingness to compete on the walls and grind a bit. Per #1, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes have that compete level when needed.
3) Looking for a hero or two
Sometimes during the lulls winning requires a player or two stepping up, putting the team on his back and leading the way to victory. James Reimer did that last Saturday in stealing a 1-0 win (not counting the empty-netter). Though the productivity has not really matched it yet, I have lately commented on Sebastian Aho’s pace. Maybe more than any other player on the roster, he could be capable of finding a higher gear, single-handedly driving the offense and leading the way into the break. Aho might be my pick for most likely, but anyone in the lineup is an option for these stretches. On Thursday, I will be watching to see if a player or two can find a higher gear and lift the team up i the process.
The puck drops at 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.