The Hurricanes emerged from their 5-day layoff from their NHL bye week looking at 5 home games. Sitting roughly 4 points below the playoff cut line and pushing into the final third of the season, pretty much everyone’s math said that the Hurricanes needed to win at least 4 out of 5 to stay relevant in the playoff chase heading into March. After 2 games and an 0-1-1 mark, 4-1 is no longer possible, and it feels like the season is slipping away. The Hurricanes are now 6 points out of a playoff spot (adjusted for games played) and trending in the wrong direction with a 4-game losing streak (1 in overtime) including a loss to the NHL’s worst team coming out of the bye week followed by a 4-0 trouncing in the next game.
Tuesday offers little relief with the Pittsburgh Penguins in town. The last time the 2 teams tangled was at PNC Arena on January 20, the Pens whooped the Hurricanes 7-1. The Penguins actually come in with consecutive losses but do not let that fool you. Pittsburgh is a good hockey team and a tough match up in the sense that it is the kind of team that can prey quickly on the intermittent defensive break downs that have been haunting the Canes of late.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Pittsburgh Penguins
Against that backdrop, here is what I am watching for:
1) A spark, some leadership, an agitated demeanor, something, anything
More than anything, I want to see players step up and fight for the 2016-17 season. Meekly fading into the April just is not acceptable. The Hurricanes have 4 players with A’s but no C.
I am looking for leaders like Faulk, Staal, Skinner and Rask to rise up and lead forward.
I am looking for players like Phil Di Giuseppe and Brock McGinn who are on the good side of the AHL/NHL fringe to make strong statements that they belong permanently on the NHL side.
I am watching to see which of the young players in key roles like Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Sebastian Aho, Elias Lindholm and others use the difficult situation to find a higher gear.
I am watching to see how the team responds to adversity.
A more specific checklist:
–Give me a noticeably higher gear from any/all of the 4 players with letters on their jerseys.
–Let’s see how emerging leaders Aho, Slavin and Pesce respond. These are the kind of of times when players emerge and leapfrog over leadership regimes that are not producing.
–I like Lindholm’s game of late, but I still think he has 1 more higher gear in terms of just willing wins.
–Part of sticking at the NHL level for players like Phil Di Giuseppe and Brock McGinn is bringing some sand paper and physicality to boost the bench. The bench needs that boost right now. Who brings it?
–Who else stands out as anything more than willing to just stand there and take what the hockey gods dish out?
For the sake of thoroughness, I will include a couple other watch points, but Tuesday night’s game is really all about #1. How does the team respond to adversity? Is it with a whimper or a roar? Who steps up and leads? Leadership is easy when things are going well. It is most needed when things are not.
2) The defense
Maybe ill-timed, this is a game that puts the Hurricanes defense and attention to detail to the test. Pittsburgh is exactly the kind of team that can opportunistically take 4-5 break downs and turn them into 3-4 goals quickly. Playing 55 minutes of pretty good hockey and collecting 40 medium-grade shots but coupling it with intermittent break downs is a recipe for another head-scratching ‘hot goalie’ loss like Sunday.
3) Phil Di Giuseppe
He had an odd game in his NHL return on Sunday. On the negative side, he was in the middle of a couple of the goals against most notably getting caught in a bad spot defending Matthews when the Canes got caught changing. But I think he played exactly the kind of game that the team wants from him. He went to the front of the net, was active and shot the puck a ton (11 times). The next step for him is to be able to slow things down just a little bit when he finds the puck on his stick and finish. He has better hands and more skill than his early season slump would suggest, and with a positive stint in Charlotte to build confidence and hunger, I am watching to see if this the time when he puts it all together.
UPDATED AFTER SEEING MICHAEL SMITH TWEET MORNING SKATE LINE COMBINATIONS. Only yesterday, I offered a list of 5 non-playoff wishes for the rest of the season. Lo and behold, either the hockey gods or Bill Peters read them and shined down on me only 1 day later! It looks like we will see Aho/Rask tonight. As I have written elsewhere, I am enticed by this pairing. Though not a pure sniper/finisher, I think Rask is a notch higher than Lindholm and Staal in terms of figuring out how to find soft spots without the puck and also in terms of skill receiving and finishing. My hope/guess is that he is exactly the kind of player that Aho’s playmaking can boost to a higher level. So tonight I will be watching closely to get a first read on my hunch.
The puck drops at about 7:07pm at PNC Arena.