Way back before on August 25 before the season even started, I noted the coming stretch of schedule as significant and labeled it as “It’s now or never.” On January 1, when I looked forward at January and February’s slate of games, I said, “I think this stretch of games in February has the greatest chance to decide the fate of the season.” Finally, last Friday’s Daily Cup Joe was titled, “25 days that decide fate of the Carolina Hurricanes 2017-18 season.”
In Friday’s article, I set an aggressive target of a 9-3 mark for the stretch of 12 games that starts tonight and sees the Hurricanes play 11 of 12 at PNC Arena. If the Hurricanes muddle through with a treading water 6-6 or 7-5 mark, they will emerge into late February still in the playoff chase, but with the best opportunity to rise up having past, my opinion is that failing to capitalize at home will be an early telltale sign that it is just not meant to be again in 2017-18.
The run of 12 games starts with three straight home games against teams currently on the wrong side of the cut line. The easiest road to nine wins would include a quick burst of three wins against lesser teams to build momentum.
First up is the Ottawa Senators. After an impressive underdog playoff run last spring, the Sens have sputtered and are currently 15-23-9, talking about trading Erik Karlsson and are talking about the draft lottery not the playoffs.
While the favorable match up could help, the game is very much about the Hurricanes side of the ledger. Brett Pesce returned before the break and Sebastian Aho is again a regular practice participant and could play. That gets the Hurricanes pretty close to full health, so it is about trying to get things firing on all cylinders for the NHL crunch time.
Against that backdrop, here are my watch points for Tuesday’s game…
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Ottawa Senators
1) Rested and ready? Or rusty?
The past weekend was the team’s second break in a short period of time. The Hurricanes had five days off for their bye week followed by a short burst of four games in six days followed by three more days off. Coming out of the bye week, the Hurricanes looked rested and played fairly well in a 3-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings. On Tuesday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can successfully convert a break into a fast pace and decent game.
2) The goaltending
I am thinking that I am just going to start copying and pasting this right here in the second slot every single game to save the writing time. I say that somewhat facetiously, but the fact of the matter is that we have again reached the point in a hockey season when how the goaltending goes could largely determine how the game goes. Monday’s Daily Cup of Joe not surprisingly had goaltending front and center in the #1 slot of the article entitled, “Five ‘ifs’ for a Carolina Hurricanes playoff berth.”
3) Mojo, swagger, momentum and all of the other fuzzy stuff
It is impossible to quantify. Some argue that it really does not exist. But in my opinion, some weird combination of attitude, momentum and all of the other character type stuff do play a role in sports. It is not random luck or coincidence that teams like the New England Patriots more often than not find a way to win even in cases where the odds suggest otherwise. And long winning streaks in the NHL do invariably have an element of luck, but I think there is an element of momentum that builds and pushes the scale to the positive side in close games. Though we have seen elements of it, I think the Carolina Hurricanes are still seeking a transformation of sorts from being a team that hopes to win to a team that game in and game out expects to win. Without any simple way to measure it, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes look like one of those good teams that have that combination of determination and confidence.
4) The defense
If the Hurricanes are to take one big step up, having the young blue line which has been up and down at times during the 2017-18 season finally put it all together could be a key ingredient. On Tuesday, I will be watching to see if the defense can get out of the gate strong for the stretch run and hopefully in the process chart a course toward a consistent finish that helps propel the team into the playoffs.
The puck drops at 7:07pm at PNC Arena.