If you missed it on Monday, catch up on the Hurricanes updated playoff prospects after a solid 3-0 record last week. That article might provide the dose of optimism needed to balance the game preview that follows. 🙂
Only 15 days ago, the Carolina Hurricanes ventured into Washington, D.C. to take on the Capitals in the fourth and final game of 4-game gauntlet. That game went poorly to say the least with the Hurricanes getting thumped 6-1 in an ugly affair. The Hurricanes would go on to lose 1 more after that to run their losing streak to 5. But following a reset with the All-Star break, the Hurricanes rebounded and will enter Tuesday’s game with a 3-game winning streak.
The momentum is a positive, but the challenge is still mighty. The Capitals are the top team in the entire NHL right now with a 5-point lead over the second best team, the Minnesota Wild. The Capitals are also an impressive 15-2-1 since the calendar flipped to 2017. And oh, they have not lost at home since December 29 in overtime and since December 17 in regulation.
Shorter version: Tuesday’s opponent and situation is incredibly tough sledding for the Hurricanes.
But per polls in Monday’s Coffee shop post, Canes fans seem to acknowledge that salvaging a 1-1 mark this week would be begrudgingly acceptable. Interestingly, a slight margin also thinks that we could finally see Eddie Lack in net in this ‘nothing to lose’ game.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Hurricanes versus the Washington Capitals
Against the challenging backdrop but also the need for the Hurricanes to collect points wherever they can, here is what I will be watching for Tuesday’s match up:
1) Hurricanes’ skating legs and attacking brand of hockey
It has been hit or miss with a bunch of misses just before the All-Star break, but the Hurricanes have shown an ability to play against some of the top teams in terms of skill and skating ability and match them. In December in Raleigh, the Hurricanes matched the Capitals through 65 minutes before losing in a shootout. Also in December, the Hurricanes managed a good win against the Blackhawks at home and put forward an effort deserving of a win in Pittsburgh despite losing 3-2. On the right night, the Hurricanes are capable of matching speed and putting skilled, attacking teams in the uncomfortable position of being attacked. The Canes will need to muster 1 of those efforts in which they skate well and are able to attack if they want to hang with the Capitals. I will be watching closely early on to see if the Hurricanes brought that jump and speed.
2) That defense thing
A day before the 5-game losing streak, I wrote what later became a foreboding, ominous post about impending doom defensively despite the 4-game winning streak that the team had at the time. The Hurricanes played arguably their best defensive game of the season stifling the Flyers in a 5-1 win last Tuesday night. The team followed it up with another strong effort against the Oilers on Friday. But both of those games were at home. On the road on Saturday, the loose defensive play reappeared despite the Hurricanes’ 5-4 overtime victory.
On the road, all season the check point has been the second pairing of Hainsey/Faulk that has been exploited at times. One can bet that they will see a heavy dose of tough challenges on Tuesday. In addition, the Hurricanes in total must be solid in terms of puck management against a Capitals team that can transition quickly and finish. I will be watching closely to see if the Hurricanes can play with pace and attack but at the same time defend and manage the puck. At the intersection of that style of play and level of play is the game that can challenge the Capitals.
NOTE AFTER MORNING SKATE: The morning skate saw a blue line swap with Slavin/Faulk and Hainsey/Pesce. This will be interesting to see if it sticks for the game. Breaking up Slavin and Pesce hurts, but I like trying this. Hainsey/Faulk has had few stretches where things looked better briefly, but now 51 games into the season, they have struggled for the most part on the road and been a significant part of the team’s broader struggles. If it works, Hainsey/Pesce looks a bit like Liles/Pesce from last season where maybe they are not the most dynamic moving the puck and generating offense, but they are sound defensively and do not give up much. Hope is that Slavin maybe brings bit more of the aggressiveness on the puck that Hainsey/Faulk seemed to lack. I also think Washington is a decent game to try something because I think of it as a ‘nothing to lose’ game and also the ultimate challenge defensively.
While an Eddie Lack ‘what do we have to lose’ start is a wild card, I peg odds at 70 percent that Peters just goes right back to Ward with 2 days off since the last start and 3 more before the next one. Like the team, Ward has rebounded since the All-Star break. He had a fairly easy night in Tuesday’s win but a bigger role in Friday’s 2-1 win over Edmonton. And despite allowing 4 goals on Saturday, Ward’s game was ‘good enough’ on a night when the team in front of him was not great. To beat the Capitals will probably require the Canes netminder to come up big.
4) Sebastian Aho
The rookie Fin has shown a knack for coming up big in big games. Could Tuesday be another? After strong efforts in Tuesday and Friday’s wins, he was quieter on Saturday. Could it be time for him to rise again? I have reached the point where Aho is worth watching closely on a nightly basis.
In February in a playoff race, a team cannot claim many exemptions, but this might be 1 of the few for the Hurricanes. Obviously, the team needs to show up with the intent of collecting a point or 2, but I think this game is also 1 where if it just does not go your way and Washington does what Washington has been doing that you just shrug, take your lumps and quickly look forward to the next game. The game is the fifth out of 6 in the second leg of my schedule break down from mid-January and can still hit the target with a Tuesday loss if it is followed by a Saturday win.
The puck drops at about 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.