Now halfway into his second year in the NHL, young superstar Connor McDavid will finally make his first appearance in Raleigh after missing last season’s visit with an injury. The visit of the next great one is a fitting end to a phenomenal hockey week at PNC Arena.
Tueseday featured a huge rebound win by the Hurricanes led by their own young phenom Sebastian Aho who netted his first NHL hat trick. That recap is HERE.
And Thursday featured an absolutely incredible local hockey event at the amateur level when NC State took on rival UNC in a festive and fun atmosphere. That recap focused more on the event and atmosphere is HERE.
But early February is no time for reveling in fun, too much enjoying the opposition or looking back at previous wins. Sitting 4 points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot (adjusted for games played) after the Flyers win last night, the Hurricanes desperately need to build a winning streak whose second step is tonight.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Edmonton Oilers
Against that backdrop, here is what I will be watching on Friday night:
1) Marking McDavid
The Hurricanes winning formula on home ice against elite scoring lines this time last year was to mark them all night with Jordan’s Staal’s checking line. Staal’s line was incredibly effective at driving the puck into the offensive zone and keeping it there with their strong cycling game on the boards. The result was that they defended incredibly well basically by not playing a whole lot of defense. The current makeup of the lineup does not have Staal centering a pure checking line or a line whose bread and butter is cycling the puck. While I still expect Aho/Staal/Lindholm with Slavin/Pesce as much as possible to see the lion’s share of ice time against McDavid, the method is more trying to balance attacking and defending and just generally playing incredibly good positional and decision-making hockey. That has the potential to be treacherous and is definitely something I will be watching as the game progresses.
2) Cam Ward
He was fine in Tuesday’s win allowing only 1 goal, but his workload was so small through 2 periods when the game was still in question, I do not feel like I really have a read on Ward’s level of play coming out of the All-Star break. He allowed a goal early and also had 2 shots beat him but go off the cross bar, so that is the paranoid side of evaluating his game. But he also did make a couple big saves in the first period essentially making the plays that were needed to win. On Friday against the Oilers, I will be watching Ward closely hoping to see that he looks sharp, rested and ready to reel off wins in a February that is friendly schedule-wise.
NOTE ADDED AFTER MORNING SKATE: Both Cory Lavalette (North State Journal) and Andrew Schnittker (Technician and Canes and Coffee) reported that Cam Ward left practice early with an apparent hand injury. Peters said after practice that Ward would be a game-time decision.
3) Sebastian Aho
He continues to gradually dial up his scoring production and has also shown a propensity for seizing the moment and leading in big games. If he simply continues on his current pace and finishes with 50ish points, he will have had an impressive rookie campaign. But the more I watch him, the more I think we are about to see the beginning of something much greater now that he has calibrated his game to NHL speed and settled in. Following his hat trick and 4-point night in what many called a ‘must win’ game on Tuesday, I will be watching to see if he is ready ahead of schedule to lead this team offensively.
4) How the team responds if things do not go well
Tuesday followed a perfect script. The Canes started strong and were fairly quickly rewarded for their strong effort with goals. From there, the team did a solid job of not letting up and continuing to push. The result was the best 60-minute effort in at least a couple weeks and a fun and easy win. But the Hurricanes’ recent history is checkered wit games where they brought the right level of intensity early and then were too easily derailed by some combination of poor puck luck or a sporadic defensive break downs. The result was multiple games where the Canes played well for stretches but then completely unraveled when that did not immediately net results. Whether it happens on Friday or in another game in the near future, I will be watching the Canes resiliency and ability to bring 60 minutes of intensity and focus even if things do not go their way early.
If you have not already, please check out today’s Daily Cup of Joe that builds a list of 6 things that I am hoping to see in this weekend’s back-to-back set.
It is not often that you can spend your Friday night watching a young superstar who might be early on the path to becoming an all-time great with a helping of playoff chase hockey. If you do not have a ticket for tonight’s 7:30pm start at PNC Arena, get one!