After a rousing 5-1 win against the Flyers on Tuesday night and a less dominant but just as solid win against the Oilers on Friday, the Hurricanes will try to run both their winning streak to 3 games on Saturday night against the Islanders. The game pits 2 teams that are close in the standings, are within striking distance of the final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference and need every point they can get. The Islanders and Hurricanes are tied with 53 points, but the Islanders do have a game in hand. The game is also what I call a “fair back-to-back” in that both teams played on Friday night and will travel Friday night before Saturday’s match up.
At a basic level, the Hurricanes will be looking to take their show on the road. The suddenly solid defensive play and attention to details that emerged coming out of the All-Star break will be tested on the road where the tactical game is much different. At home, Peters was able to dictate who played against whom and play to his strengths/preferences. On the road, being sound defensively much more requires the entire lineup to be air tight with the opposing coach driving match ups and exploiting situations he prefers.
The Isles did lose on Friday in Detroit but still come into the game red hot with a 6-0-1 record in the 7 games prior to Friday. The Isles last regulation loss prior to Friday in Detroit was the wild 7-4 win for the Hurricanes on January 13. Not surprisingly, John Tavares has been right in the middle of the resurgence with 4 goals and 7 assists in his last 8 games. Look no further than Tavares’ recent surge to find the biggest challenge in taking the strong defense on the road.
‘What I’m watching for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the New York Islanders
Against that backdrop, here is what I will be watching on Saturday night:
1) Eddie Lack (we think)
I have not seen any kind of official word as of writing this late on Friday night, but my expectation and others’ too is that Eddie Lack will get the start. If so, it will be his start at the NHL level since November 6. Lack did get 2 tune up starts with the Charlotte Checkers last week and fared well per a report from Jordan Futrell who covers the Checkers at Canes and Coffee. As challenging as it might be, the Hurricanes really need Lack to hit the ground running, as they are looking up at the cut line for the 2017 playoffs and have minimal margin for error right now. If Lack starts, from the opening face-off I will be watching Lack closely in terms of rebound control, puck handling and positioning to see if he looks comfortable and ready or if he looks like he is trying to fight his way back into it. Related but different will also be to see if the Hurricanes skaters can quickly find a trust level and just play their game in front of him instead of trying to adjust to compensate for the change.
The dirty little secret in Raleigh is that the veteran defense pairing who were thought to be the team’s top pairing heading into the season have actually struggled to be a solid second pairing. Per the home/away discussion above, the way things work for the defense is that at home, the top pairing usually sees the toughest match ups because the home coach wants it that way. But on the road, the opposing coach drives match ups and oftentimes tries to exploit a weaker second pairing with his top scoring line. And that is exactly what we have seen through much of the 2016-17 season. Justin Faulk’s minus 22 in only 23 games played on the road and Ron Hainsey’s minus 18 in 26 games on the road are a significant factor in the Hurricanes’ weak 6-14-6 record on the road. You can take it to the bank that interim Islanders coach and 2006 Hurricanes Stanley Cup winner Doug Weight will try to attack and exploit the Hainsey/Faulk pairing with a full night of Tavares’ line. And you can also bet that how Hainsey/Faulk fares with this challenge will have a significant bearing on the outcome.
3) Continued strong play defensively and handling the puck from the rest of the lineup
While I put Hainsey/Faulk in the spotlight, there is also a need for the broader lineup to transition from home to the road with the post-All-Star break level of play intact.
4) Sebastian Aho
The 19-year rookie is surging right now with 4 goals and 5 points in 2 games this week. As I have said many times, I am strongly of the opinion that elite players do not so much develop as seize opportunities oftentimes ahead of any logical schedule. That might be exactly what we are seeing right now, as Aho has at least for a short run become the Hurricanes offensive leader. I continue to watch to see if he can keep building.
The puck drops at about 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.