Though it is a weekday game still barely in January, Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers should have as much of a playoff atmosphere as Hurricanes’ fans have seen in multiple years. The game pits the Flyers who are currently sitting in the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference against the Hurricanes who desperately need to do work to have a chance to play for it in March. The magnitude of the game and also local Flyers fans should boost attendance, and the team running a $27 Justin Faulk All-Star special on top of it should further boost the intensity level in the building.
What a difference a week or 2 makes in terms of the fortunes of the 2 opponents. About 10 days ago, the Flyers limped into their NHL-mandated off week. The Flyers were still sitting right on the playoff cut line by virtue of a huge 10-game winning streak in December, but the Flyers had also stumbled to a 1-3-1 mark heading into their break. The Flyers returned from the break with another loss, but have since won 3 straight surging into the All-Star break.
The Hurricanes have traveled in the opposite direction. After hunting down and even passing the struggling Flyers, the Hurricanes fell on hard times and have lost 5 straight. The losing streak sees the Hurricanes clinging to playoff hopes suddenly 5 points behind the Flyers (adjusted for games played). With a loss, the Hurricanes would fall to 7 back which would put them 2-3 points behind where the team was at this point last season. And we know how that ended.
As big as Tuesday’s game is and as important as it is to capitalize on the opportunity to pull down the Flyers, Tuesday for me is really all about the Hurricanes. After a layoff for the All-Star weekend, does the team shake off all that was ailing them last week, recharge physically, reset mentally and find a higher gear out of the gate? Or does it look like some variation of the train wreck or work in process of late. Based on the Hurricanes’ position in the standings, the team has reached the stage where moral victories count for nothing and progress without results in terms of improvement points strongly at shifting optimism to the 2017-18 season.
Polls in Monday’s Coffee Shop post suggest that Caniacs are optimistically expecting a huge win on Tuesday. An informal poll of Canes hockey experts on Twitter leaned toward calling this game a “must win.” If you do not have plans for Tuesday night, PNC Arena is highly recommended for a pre-April dose of playoff atmosphere hockey and hopefully a big win that sends the Hurricanes into February still aiming to do playoff hockey in 2017.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Philadelphia Flyers
Against this backdrop, here is what I will be watching for Tuesday’s huge match up at PNC Arena:
1) Jump and intensity out of the gate
There is the layoff factor. There is the Canes’ losing streak and possible tentativeness factor. And there is the huge game factor. I will be curious to see how Tuesday’s game starts. Does it have a tentative feeling each other out kind of start? Or does 1 team very clearly get the significance of this game and dial up the intensity level heading out of the locker room and into the opening face-off?
2) Who leads and carries?
Maybe it is overly dramatic, but especially for teams like the Hurricanes trying to climb over the hump from out to in, I feel like the NHL season is at that point where this does not happen solely from collective efforts but rather happens more often because a player or a handful of players seize the moment, play at a substantially higher level and pull the entire team upward. While there is a list of most likely candidates, I also think anyone is eligible. I will take Sebastian Aho as a dark horse.
3) Cam Ward
His up and down January is well-documented at Canes and Coffee in multiple articles including “Deep dive on Cam Ward and the Carolina Hurricanes goalie situation” on January 13, my foreboding “Readying for the road…” on January 16, “Righting the ship” from January 23. For the Hurricanes to make a push up the standings and into the late March playoff battle, the team will need a goalie playing a level that gives the team a chance to collect points on a nightly basis. Cam Ward did exactly that and actually even better for a long stretch in November and December, but he has not in January. In addition to being a critical 2 points, Tuesday is also a critical first read on whether Ward can reset after the All-Star break and quickly get back to the level he was playing at earlier in the season.
4) Tidying up the defense and attention to detail
The last 2 items on this list are repeated like a broken record lately and also go hand in hand. Without both of Cam Ward playing at least ‘good enough’ in net and the defense significantly decreasing the volume of miscues, break downs and other bad stuff, the best the Hurricanes can hope for is up a continued up and down ride which will not be good enough to move up the standings. Slavin/Pesce need to play at their highest level from the tail end of 2016. Hainsey/Faulk needs to find a much higher gear for the second half of the season (or alternatively see my plan B for a second pairing in Monday’s Daily Cup of Joe). And the team in total just needs to decrease its volume of mistakes at bad times and in bad places. Tuesday is a first look after the All-Star break to see if a few days off helps the Hurricanes right the ship defensively.
The puck drops at about 7:07pm at PNC Arena. Find a ticket if you do not have one already, and get a tiny taste of what NHL playoff hockey will be like when it returns to Raleigh.