With a week off to heal any bumps and bruises and recharge, the hope was that the Canes would be rejuvenated and have a refill on jump for the first game after the break on Wednesday. The opposite was true. The Canes were sluggish and looked like they were trying to find the ‘go to work’ gear after a week of vacation. The result was a 4-1 loss that never really saw the Canes in the game physically and only in it on the scoreboard until about the midway point.
Tonight in Winnipeg, the Canes play their second of 3 games on a tour across Canada to start February. Like the Calgary Flames, the Winnipeg Jets are another team that currently looks more like a trade deadline seller than a playoff contender. Winnipeg is in the cellar of the league-best Central Division, has a 1-game losing streak and is 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. As such, this falls into the category of ‘winnable,’ but Wednesday’s results clearly highlight that winning in the NHL is earned on a nightly basis and not granted based on expectations.
But after a failure to restart coming out of the break, my ‘what I’m watching preview’ focuses solely on the Canes and not on the opponent:
1) More JUMP!
The Canes just did not have it on Wednesday but need to refind it quickly. The biggest early indicator in this game will be whether the Canes can find a higher gear out of the gate, drive play early and get back into the swing of things after the lay off.
2) Sounder defense
A recurring theme in my posts over the past few weeks has been the Canes intermittent struggles on the back end. The team has mustered some good outings and has also survived some bad ones posting a strong record in January, but there were also some real ugly games defensively sprinkled in. Wednesday was not the worst of them, but it was not good either. With Brett Pesce on the shelf with a lower body injury Coach Bill Peters made the decision to recall and insert Ryan Murphy instead of Michal Jordan, and he also bumped Noah Hanifin up to the second pairing with Ron Hainsey leaving Jaccob Slavin in the bottom pair with Ryan Murphy. That lasted exactly 1 period. It is not fair to hang Wednesday’s loss solely on the blue line. To a man, the Canes just were not very good. But the defense was definitely a part of it. Best guess is that Peters sticks with a top 4 of Liles, Hainsey, Faulk and Slavin and leaves Hanifin/Murphy from early in the season together, but regardless of how the puzzle pieces are put together, the group in total needs to return to playing consistent, sound hockey.
3) Is the time now for Eric Staal?
Entering the grind part of the season, the Canes leaders need to lead if there is going to be another leg higher in 2015-16. Jordan Staal has been the team’s best player for awhile now and seems to be on track. Eric Staal and his line have not been bad by any means, but I think if the Canes are to push higher it will need to be on the back of a second half surge by Eric Staal. The drama and intrigue is interesting. If he does rise up and put the team on his back for the next couple weeks, the team could enter the trade deadline week very much still playing for 2015-16 and led by a player who theoretically could be scheduled to leave. There are other options to carry this team in February with Jordan Staal playing well, Justin Faulk increasingly stepping to the front of the pack and Jeff Skinner capable of surging at any moment. But my gut instinct tells me that the next 3 weeks look more like a grind than a surge if the top line led by Eric Staal continues to be good not great offensively. And if that is the case, it could see Eric Staal on the trading block as Ron Francis priorities shift out of 2015-16 and into the future.
4) Possible Cam Ward return? If so, is he ready or rusty?
As of writing this, I have not seen an announcement of a Canes goalie starter (someone holler if they have), but my wild guess is that Ward gets the start. He has been cleared to return for awhile now and has been practicing. The team had bigger problems than Lack on Wednesday, but he was not great either. Ward last played on January 15, so with every game critical right now, his reinsertion into the lineup adds another level of drama. The Canes are not in a position where they can afford to give up a couple games while he shakes off rust and gets back into a groove.
The puck drops at about 8pm on Fox Sports with John, Tripp and Michelle.