Nothing beats tailgating for a game that obviously matters in late April, May or even better June. But in the name of being thankful for what you have not what you want, today is a glorious day for Canes fans. On February 21, the Canes are playing a game that very much matters and it comes with spring weather very worthy of tailgating. That itself is a wonderful thing.
The sets up a little bit like last weekend except with a more compressed schedule and a more important opponent. The Canes lost on Thursday but rebounded with a strong win against a good team on Friday. That sets Sunday up as the deciding game in the current 3-game mini-stretch. It is subject to change many times over the coming weeks, but the opponent is also 1 of the teams that the Canes are trying to catch in the Eastern Conference standings right now. In terms of games above .500, the key teams right now are Tampa Bay at +10, Pittsburgh at +9 and Detroit at +9 (Pens and Wings also both play today.) with the Canes sitting at +5.
So to say that the hockey after the tailgating also matters would be an understatement.
Tampa Bay comes in after playing and winning an afternoon game in Pittsburgh yesterday. That impressive win against a Pens team that has been good of late pushed the Lightning to 6-4 in its past 10 games. The Canes come in with stats to match. They also won their most recent game against San Jose and are actually better points-wise at 6-2-2. For the Canes, the game represents a chance to push to 6 games above .500 and within 2-3 points of a playoff spot (adjusted for games played) depending on if Detroit or Pittsburgh lose today.
As for ‘what I’m watching’:
1) More of the same from Jordan Staal’s line
The routine for Canes home games goes something like this these days:
Bill Peters: “Which is their best forward line?” (pause for answer) “Okay, then they will see Jordan Staal’s line pretty much each and every shift.”
The recent scoring surge from Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom has been welcome obviously, but the line’s primary goal is still to play break even hockey at a minimum and hold the opponent’s best line in check.
2) But balance is required too
Tampa Bay does have top end talent in Steven Stamkos, but the group of forwards is also deep and balanced. They are not a 1-trick pony. Winning today will require the Canes other lines to also step up. Here is hoping that Jeff Skinner’s 2-goal game yesterday and somewhat quiet but steady production leading up to that game is the beginning of another Skinner scoring eruption. Eric Staal also picked up a point on an assist on Friday, so just maybe he and Kris Versteeg are on the verge of turning puck possession into scoreboard production. Surprisingly, the second line has been doing some of the heavy lifting in terms of secondary scoring especially in key situations. Could we be working up to a next level when things start firing on all cylinders? One can hope.
3) Sound in net
A key contributor to the Canes success since early December has been generally consistent and solid play in net regardless of who is starting. That has generally been true recently, but we have also seen a couple really bad goals over the past 4-5 games with Ward and Lack each letting in a soft goal from a bad angle and Ward misplaying a puck behind his net on Friday for a tap in goal while he was still behind the net on Friday. So far, it has really only cost the Canes a point (in Pittsburgh game that Canes lost in overtime), but best would not be to count on being able to overcome free goals against.
4) The blue line
After missing 5 games with a lower body injury, Justin Faulk will skate the warm up tonight and be a game-time decision. The blue line has held up well in his absence but is obviously better with him back in the lineup. My daily post for today suggested, that if Faulk returns it might make sense to mostly leave the lineup the same and just put Faulk in Jordan’s slot with Hanifin for the near-term (possibly as short as a period). That eases him back into it and enables Peters to get a read on where he is in terms of rust/readiness and might help keep his minutes a little lower. Peters can then adjust him up or down the depth chart and ice time based on how he and the rest of the defense/match ups look.
5) Same approach and path
The importance and pressure continues to become greater game by game. But for the Canes, there is not any need to use that to try to play better or do anything. The team is good enough right now. The key is just to keep doing what they have been doing anyway (which is playing solid hockey on a consistent basis) and not try to do too much or something different.
The puck drops at about 7:07pm at PNC Arena, but the parking should be warming up about right now.