After being one of the best surprise stories of the first half of the season, the Buffalo Sabres have sputtered a bit since the start of the new year. The Sabres are just 4-7-1 so are in 2019. In their past seven games, the Sabres are 3-4-0 but have lost all four by lopsided margins averaging four-goal deficits per game.
The Hurricanes are at the other end of the spectrum. After a ‘meh’ start and a rough December, the Hurricanes have rebounded strongly in 2018. The team was 8-3-1 in January, and is off to a 2-1 start in February against three strong opponents.
With the teams tied for points right now, the winner will take sole possession of ninth place in the Eastern Conference and need to catch only one time (currently the Blue Jackets) to push up into playoff position.
For the Hurricanes, this game represents a great chance to continue their rise and do so by stepping on the head of another team trying to climb the standings ladder.
As far as on the ice, the Hurricanes mostly need to just keep the pedal down. Coming out of the All-Star break and bye week layoff, the Hurricanes have looked energized. Whatever imperfections the the team’s play has had have been mostly overshadowed by a full throttle forecheck and attacking pace.
My watch points follow:
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Buffalo Sabres
1) More of the same in terms of pace and intensity
Right now, the Hurricanes have a great rhythm and pace, but not to be overlooked is the recent pause that saw the Hurricanes lose consecutive lackluster efforts to the Rangers and Senators only a couple weeks ago. As Curtis McElhinney said after Tuesday’s impressive win in Pittsburgh, the Canes need to “keep pushing”. Despite the recent success, the Canes December struggles leave little margin for error, so it is critical that the team keeps pushing each and every game. So on Thursday, I will be watching early to make sure that the Canes stay in high gear and do not become overconfident or complacent.
2) A cleaner game defensively
My recap of the loss to Calgary on Sunday highlighted the fact that when the Flames were able to get behind the Canes forecheck, they were too easily able to convert that to grade A scoring chances. The result was a typical old school Canes loss that saw the Hurricanes have the upper hand plenty, win the possession and shots battle but rightfully lose because too many break downs led to a disadvantage in terms of grade A scoring chances. It was mostly buried underneath an overwhelming forecheck, but I actually saw some of the same in the first half of the win over the Pens. The team gave up four breakaway or partial breakaway chances in the first period alone. If not for the usual heroics by Curtis McElhinney who made tough saves look easy, Tuesday’s game could have been on a significantly different course entering the second period. The Hurricanes were somewhat better as the game wore on, but more than anything the team was just so dominant on the forecheck that it had to play very little defense. I view the defensive issues as a potential trojan horse if/when an opponent can solve the forecheck. Though the current formula of just out-skating and overwhelming the opposition has worked well, I will be watching to see if the team can also tighten up the defense in its own just a bit.
3) Special teams
After a stretch of being mostly inept on both special teams units, the team has rebounded a bit. The penalty kill is now middle of the pack at 15th in the NHL and in general has been pretty good. The power play rebounded as well, at least briefly, but has sputtered again of late. Sunday’s loss saw the Hurricanes give up a power play goal and a shorthanded goal on the way to a 4-3 loss. Though the team is winning by virtue of its even strength play right now, the power play remains an area for potential improvement. Especially in tight games under the pressure of playoff hopes, special teams can often be the difference. I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can re-find their power play.
The puck drops at 7pm on Fox Sports Southeast with John, Tripp and Mike.