In early October, I do not think anyone could have imagined where the Vegas Golden Knights would be right now which is atop the standings in the Western Conference and very much among the teams that have a chance for a deep playoff run and a Stanley Cup. The expansion draft format was more generous than what past expansion teams received, but the team still figured to be significantly short on top-end talent. Instead, the team has found some combination of plenty of talent and instant chemistry and in the process has become what is easily the biggest story of the 2017-18 season thus far.
But closer to home, the Carolina Hurricanes are scratching and clawing right now to make a 2017-18 story of their own. As the team with the longest playoff drought in the entire league, the team is past due for finally making a return to the playoffs. The Hurricanes currently sit in the bottom part of a logjam of Metropolitan Division teams who are fighting for the two Eastern Conference wild card slots. With their win on Saturday, the Hurricanes will enter Sunday’s game two points out of a playoff spot (adjusted for games played) and very much in the hunt but needing to keep winning to keep pace and ultimately catch the teams ahead of them.
Against that backdrop, here are my watch points for Sunday’s game.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Vegas Golden Knights
1) Scott Darling
I have not seen an announcement of a starter for Sunday yet, but I will be surprised if Coach Bill Peters does not give Scott Darling the start on Sunday and in the process split the back-to-back set. I have goaltending as an absolute must if the Hurricanes are to push up into the playoffs. Ward had a short stretch of ‘iffy’ play with a bad, odd angle short side goal and then shortly thereafter a similar shot that luckily clanged off the post and out. But when the dust settled, the Hurricanes won and Cam Ward had allowed only one goal in a narrow win. As ‘results matter’ gains even more importance in the second half of the season, I gladly take Saturday and with it Ward’s play. So Sunday represents a chance for Scott Darling to similarly start strong after the break. And as I said in Saturday’s preview, I think we have reached the point in the season when goaltending will be a watch point more or less every game.
2) The physical response in game two after the break
I wondered heading into Saturday’s game if the Hurricanes would look rested and ready or just rusty after five days off. Rested and ready won out by a significant margin. The Hurricanes attacked and tilted the ice in the first and third periods and were not horrible in the middle stanza either. But the level of difficulty opponent-wise will ratchet up a couple notches on Sunday, and the Hurricanes will also face playing a rested team after playing and traveling the night before. Especially early and late in the game, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes see a carry over from their recharged effort on Saturday or if instead two games in two days is too much after the layoff.
3) Carry over and hopefully results from Jeff Skinner
Jeff Skinner did not get on the score sheet in Saturday’s win, but he was buzzing around the offensive zone, around the puck and often in front of the net a bunch and came really close to scoring as a result. If he plays with the tenacity that he did on Saturday, the goals will come. So especially after playing the right way but not being rewarded for it, I will be watching to see if Skinner can double down with the same effort and hopefully be rewarded for it this time.
4) Elias Lindholm with Jordan Staal
I said during Saturday’s game that one possible silver lining from Sebastian Aho being out of the lineup with an injury could be Elias Lindholm being reunited with Jordan Staal. Lindholm’s best run of hockey in his young NHL career started at about the midway point of the 2016-17 season and came when he was paired with Jordan Staal. Lindholm scored twice on Saturday and played a strong game in total. On Sunday, I will be watching for continued momentum for Lindholm and also for Staal’s line in total.
The puck drops at an odd 6pm right in between the normal 7pm start and the regular 5pm Sunday starts at PNC Arena.