Until the last week or maybe 2 of the season, calling any single game a ‘must win’ game is usually not clear cut. There is still time to reel off 5-6 straight wins on the back of a single loss or even 2. So ‘must win’ in February is more about degrees than absoluteness. This said, games are quickly becoming closer to ‘must win’ for the Canes. The team entered the all-star break with a gap to make up to catch the pack in the middle of the Eastern Conference. Since the break the Canes are a respectable 1-1-2. But if the Canes are to make a go of late March and early April for the 2015-16 season, they will need to find a stretch of hockey that is a notch or 2 higher than ‘respectable’ especially when facing the teams above them in the standings. Saturday’s 10-year Cup anniversary tilt with the Islanders is another such game. The Isles sit 11 games above .500 which is 2 better than the Pens who are now 9 above .500. It is hard to say for sure, but it is very possible that the Canes could find themselves chasing the Isles instead of the Pens.
My ‘what I’m watching’ for Saturday night is:
1) Energy level
After a hard-fought game that yielded only consolation prize results, will 4 days off and playing at the edge of standings desperation be enough for the Canes to find their legs against an Isles team that rested yesterday. With the loss, it is easy to nitpick execution and specific elements of Friday’s loss to the Pens, but I thought the Canes compete level was good from opening face-off through the conclusion of Friday’s game.
2) A Jordan Staal encore
On Friday, Jordan Staal’s line was tasked with shutting down Sidney Crosby’s line. The line did exactly that. Crosby and his line had nothing on the score sheet, and Andrej Nestrasil scored the lone Canes goal with an assist to Joakim Nordstrom with Crosby’s line on the ice to make the group plus 1 on the night for that match up. (Jordan Staal was not on the ice for that goal.) John Tavares comes in with 4 goals and 5 assists in 6 games in February. I would expect Jordan Staal to again get the tough assignment to shut down the Isles best all night.
3) More finish
The Canes played a decent game on Friday and generally won the stats battle, but the volume of grade A scoring chances created was modest and the results (1 goal) were not enough. I thought Skinner/Rask/Lindholm was pretty good, but they did not find the score sheet. Eric Staal continues to play solid power forward puck possession hockey but just has not been able to find a higher gear to also find a stretch as a dynamic scorer. A burst of scoring like the recent Winnipeg game would be a great find for Saturday night.
4) Repeat performance from the blue line
Minus Justin Faulk on Friday, the Canes defense was pretty solid. Jaccob Slavin stepped into the top pairing with Ron Hainsey against a tough opponent in a big game and handled it well. Liles/Pesce was reunited and generally stayed out of trouble defensively. And Noah Hanifin did the heavy lifting in terms of moving the puck for the third pairing. Overall, the group was very good. The Canes will need the same with or without Justin Faulk against another good NHL offense with some high-end scoring talent.
The puck drop is slotted for something like 7:15pm at PNC Arena after another fun night remembering the magical 2005-06 season.