IMPORTANT FOR SEASON TICKET HOLDERS: Sunday’s game which was originally a 7:30pm start was changed to 7pm, so ignore your ticket and arrive at PNC Arena earlier if you want to see the first period.
Almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the 2016-17 season, a hockey game between the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs still has playoff relevance. On Saturday I compared and contrasted the rebuilding projects underway in Raleigh and Toronto. I think it would be fair to say that a return to the playoffs for either team in 2017 would be a year ahead of schedule. Despite entering Sunday’s match up with a 2-game losing streak, the Maple Leafs are currently in better position basically tied for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference (adjusted for games played). Using the same ‘games above .500′ math, the Hurricanes enter the game 4 points behind and needing to quickly get on track before the season slips away.
The Maple Leafs are quickly becoming one of the funnest teams in the entire league to watch. The team is led by 3 young offensive stars all 20 years old or younger in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. The Hurricanes will catch a small break in that Marner will miss Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury. The upstart Leafs’ offense that is sixth in the NHL in scoring will no doubt try to test a Hurricanes defense that was shaky in its bye week return on Friday.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Hurricanes versus the Maple Leafs
Here is what I will be watching especially out of the starting gate for Sunday’s match up.
1) Less rust
Put bluntly, the Hurricanes were bad on Friday night. An outstanding game by Cam Ward in net and perhaps a little help from matching up against the NHL’s worst team converted the game to an OTL point, but the Hurricanes really did not deserve even that. Coming out of the bye week layoff, the team looked completely disjointed in terms of moving the puck and just in general. With another day of practice on Saturday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can rebound and regain a regular season level of play.
2) Sound defensive play against an attacking offense
The Maple Leafs can and will attack with speed and skill. The Hurricanes blue line which has sporadically had rough games needs to find its higher gear on Sunday. I will be watching early to see how Peters matches up against a potential combination of Nylander and Matthews with Marner out and how the team in read looks defensively early. A month that saw Connor McDavid make his Raleigh debut at the beginning of the month will now see Auston Matthews make his local debut toward the end of it. Here is hoping the defense can keep him quiet.
3) A continuation from Cam Ward
Ward was by far and away the team’s best player on Friday. Best guess is that it will take another strong outing from him on Sunday to collect an all-important win.
4) A spark offensively
The Hurricanes’ offense has been sputtering of late. Jeff Skinner looked better on Friday collecting a goal, having another waived off and just generally being a noticeable presence in the offensive zone. That is a significant improvement, but in total the Hurricanes again struggled both to generate enough chances and also to finish when given the opportunity. Phil Di Giuseppe was recalled from Charlotte on Saturday and is expected to jump straight into the lineup. Can he bring a little bit of power forward and a little bit of skill and help jump start another scoring line? Can someone else find a higher gear? The Hurricanes need more offensively refind their winning ways while it still matters for the 2016-17 season.
The puck drops at about 7:07pm at PNC Arena.