The hockey and football gods clearly did not coordinate schedules for today. On a day when the Carolina Panthers play at 1pm and the Pittsburgh Steelers play at 4:40pm, the Hurricanes and Penguins play a 3pm game that overlaps with both.
The game is a big 1. Riding a strong December and first half of January, the Carolina Hurricanes are suddenly a going concern the Eastern Conference standings. And the Penguins who were expected to be higher also find themselves in the middle of a 6-7 team battle royale for the last 2 playoff spots. The 2 points is huge as is the possibility of holding the opponent to 0 in the process.
The game is a rematch of Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime win by the Canes in Raleigh and also the end of another busy week. The game marks the Canes fourth game in 6 days and the end of a second consecutive 4-game week. With a layoff until Thursday Coach Bill Peters can empty the tank (if anyone has anything left in in) on Sunday to try to claim a needed win.
Here is what I will be watching for the 3pm (or roughly 4:30 off the DVR after the Panthers game) for many:
1) Lineup/match ups
Evgeni Malkin is having a pretty good season despite the Pens struggles. Sidney Crosby seems to be finding his higher gear of late. And the game is in Pittsburgh which gives the Pens the ability to dictate match ups. Michal Jordan looked okay on Friday despite a long layoff from game action, but ideal would be to have Brett Pesce back in the lineup. Victor Rask has been playing but his ice time suggests he might not be 100%. With Pittsburgh having the last change, the Canes need to get a solid effort across the entire roster.
2) Scoring from Jordan Staal and company
Jordan Staal’s line continues to be the team’s best and most consistent. On slow nights, they mostly give up nothing and force their opponents to play defense against the line’s solid cycling game. On even better nights, they generate scoring to boot. One can bet that the Penguins will steer Crosby and Malkin’s line away from Jordan Staal as much as possible and try to get them mucking it up against the Pens’ lower lines. This is 1 of those nights when Jordan Staal and company need to flip the switch to offense and take advantage of lesser match ups since they will not be given much opportunity to win simply by playing 0-0 against the other team’s best.
3) The start
Overall the Canes have been playing decent hockey for 60 minutes in most games, but the first period has been more surviving than thriving. The Canes have been prone to take a few early penalties but have survived with help from a rising penalty kill. The Canes have then surged in the second two-thirds of the game on the way to victories or at least collecting a point by getting to overtime. Ideal would be to start a bit faster and also keep the surge that has generally been kicking in after the first period.
4) Best against best
This is 1 of those games where whoever’s best players are better probably wins. The ball is on the tee for Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Justin Faulk, Jeff Skinner, etc. to go win a hockey game against some other pretty good players.
5) The net
The Canes goaltending from both Eddie Lack and Cam Ward has been solid, consistent and a key component of the team’s success over the past 6 weeks, but I thought Ward could have been better on Friday. Facing much less quality and quantity than the opposing goalie, he was beaten short side 3 times on only 22 shots total. It is hard to get too bent out of shape on 2 goals against in regulation, but that game did have 2-1 win written all over it with the Canes being the better team. Whether it is Ward or Lack on Sunday, the Canes need a good effort in net against a Pens team that has some recently improving scoring fire power but has struggled at times in 2015-16 and does not need any help getting them going.
As stated above, the puck drops at 3pm on Fox Sports or at 4:30ish pm for Carolina Panthers fans who will join on DVR after football.