With the roads in Raleigh still a sheet of ice in many places and likely to refreeze after dark and the Carolina Panthers playing for a trip to the Superbowl at 6:30pm, the Carolina Hurricanes 6pm match up against the Calgary Flames at PNC Arena is likely an afterthought for all but those on the die-hard Canes fan bus.
The game is another big 1 for the team somewhat similar to Thursday’s game in Toronto. On Thursday, the Canes had a chance to collect 2 points, push closer to the break still in the hunt and get a win before a potentially tough match up the next game. The Canes did earn the win in Toronto before being thumped at home in the second half of the back-to-back by a waiting Rangers team. This weekend has not been kind in terms of help in the standings and already sees the Canes drifting another point or 2 back in the standings. With the Rangers loss in the rear view mirror and the red hot Blackhawks looming ahead, Sunday against the Flames sets up as a winnable game that the Canes really need to get.
The opponent is a team in a somewhat similar spot to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Calgary Flames unloaded Jarome Iginla and a few other veterans a couple years back and seemed to commit fully to a project of rebuilding with youth. Also like the Hurricanes, the team still has some key veterans sprinkled in the lineup including captain Mark Giordano. But the players to watch are the young forwards who play with pace, attack and score in bunches when playing well. Undersized phemon Johnny Gaudreau leads the way playing at a point per game pace, and Sean Monahan who was in the group of options available when the Canes selected Elias Lindholm is second on the team in scoring with 29 points. On a path for a multi-year rebuild, the Flames rose up ahead of schedule and made the playoffs last season, but have fallen back to a competitive version of ‘just okay’ this season playing .500 hockey like the Hurricanes.
With that here is what I am watching for Sunday night:
1) Can the D pull things back together
After a run of playing pretty consistently sound hockey through December, the team has had regular fits of the wheels coming completely off defensively. My count is 3 games out of the past 9 in which the Canes defense was just horrible and gave the goalie or the team in general no chance. No doubt fatigue and young defensemen playing through a long season and challenging stretch of schedule had something to do with it, but excuses count for nothing in the NHL. Especially against a team that can transition with speed and finish with skill, can the Canes find a better brand of hockey on the back end?
2) Matching speed and winning the neutral zone
As noted above, Calgary is built with speed and skill at forward. The Flames can play quick through the neutral zone. If the Canes do not slow them coming up the ice, this game could look a bit like the rough outing in Vancouver a few weeks back with intermittent odd man rushes against for grade A scoring chances.
3) A model for the Canes future
Both of my past 2 daily posts have talked about the Canes need to get better at forward. 2 days ago I wrote about how the accelerated development of the Canes young defensemen could force Ron Francis to try to accelerate the rebuild at forward. You can find that post HERE. And for today, I evaluated the Canes top 9 forwards for scoring basically coming to the conclusion that the Canes are short offensively. You can find that post HERE. In the modern day NHL that emphasizes skating and the ability to attack with speed and skill, I think the Calgary Flames present an interesting visual and model for the direction that the Canes need to go at forward. Sure there is a need for some size mixed in. And being able to play solid 2-way hockey is critical to winning. But the Canes also need to significantly dial up their ability to skate and score. Calgary does that incredibly well.
The puck drops at about 6:07pm at PNC Arena.