After failing to exorcise the demons versus the Rangers on Friday night and losing the fourth of four in that season series, the Hurricanes are quickly back in action versus the Maple Leafs on Saturday night in Toronto.
With Friday’s loss pushing the Canes back below the playoff cut line (though with games in hand), Saturday’s game has a bit of extra urgency.
In each of the last seven weekends of the season starting this one, the Hurricanes will play a back-to-back set with the second game on the road with travel. That can be challenging physically, but I think equally significant will be the mental resiliency required if the Canes lose the first game. The pressure is gradually ramping up this time of year anyway. When a win in the second game is needed just to salvage a split and avoid a losing streak, it can be even harder.
The opponent is a Maple Leafs team that also needs every point it can get. Partly due to a recent Panthers’ slide, the Leafs enter the game sitting in the third playoff slot in the Atlantic Division with a small two-point gap that has them still in fray. After consecutive losses and being challenged by their coach, the Leafs rebounded on Thursday with an impressive 4-0 win over a Penguins team that is among the NHL’s best right now.
On the Hurricanes side of the ledger, I think this game is about converting Friday’s loss into an extra dose of determination and hunger and not self-doubt or questioning.
My watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Toronto Maple Leafs
1) Determination or doubt
As noted above, I think the key this time of year is using setbacks to find an extra shot of energy and determination. One key to the success of the 2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes was the team’s ability to repeatedly cut losing streaks short at a single game. Starting in January, the Hurricanes were 10-2 in games following a regulation loss. On Saturday, I will be watching closely to see if the Canes look to have an extra dose of determination early or if instead the team seems to be trying to overcome a bit of self-doubt.
2) The top line
Sebastian Aho did notch a power play goal with an assist to Andrei Svechnikov, and the top line did muster other scoring chances and a decent game. But probably for the first time since they were put together the other team’s top players were better than them. Specifically, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad drove the Rangers to a win. On Saturday against another team with elite forwards who drive the team’s success, I will be watching to see if Aho and company can rise above a high level of competition.
Especially in the second half of a back-to-back with travel, the Hurricanes are likely to have some low points. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes netminder can hold the fort if needed.
Another hallmark of the 2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes was the team’s success in back-to-back sets. So far in 2019-20, the Hurricanes have played only three games that were the second half of back-to-backs and on the road.. The Canes are 2-1 in those games which hopefully shows that it is definitely capable of rebounding quickly. Nonetheless, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes have it physically, especially early and late in the game.
The puck drops at 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.