After an odd late February four-day break that was not the All-Star weekend or the bye week, the Hurricanes look to leverage the days off for a fresh start after three consecutive losses (one in overtime) last weekend).
The game is the first of yet another back-to-back set and also happens in the middle of the growing din about the 2018 NHL trade deadline which is Monday afternoon. If you took the last four days off as a fan to rest and recuperate for the stretch run, you can find the most recent entry in my trade deadline series entitled, “Pinpointing categories, evaluating options and naming names” is HERE along with links to the previous four articles.
Trade deadline woes
This time has recently been a challenging one for the Carolina Hurricanes and a harbinger of another disappointing ending. For the 2016-17 season, the Carolina Hurricanes stumbled into the trade deadline with a 1-5-1 record making it fairly easy for Ron Francis to decide that he was a seller again and not a buyer. When the dust settled on the 2017 trade deadline, Ron Hainsey and Viktor Stalberg were gone and Francis obviously did not add for a playoff push. The Hurricanes actually rebounded and surged, but the season had more or less ended prior to the trade deadline.
The 2015-16 season featured a similar story. The Hurricanes meekly lost three straight games approaching trade deadline day and in the process cemented Eric Staal’s trade deadline fate during a season that also saw John-Michael Liles and Kris Versteeg cleared out of the top half of the roster in return for improving the future of the team past the end of the current season.
Heading into the final two of 15 games (3 years X 5 games each) leading up to the trade deadline over the last three seasons, the Hurricanes sport a 2-9-2 record.
But with the potential to forge a new path
We will not likely know until Monday what exactly Francis is up to and will complete leading up to the NHL trade deadline, but as for the team, it is still very much in playoff hunt right now but definitely with the season teetering in the balance. With two wins this weekend, the Hurricanes should emerge after the trade deadline tied or possibly alone in a playoff spot. With a continuation of trade deadline woes from past years, the Hurricanes could go into Monday with a five-game losing streak, heading in the wrong direction and suddenly 4-6 points out of a playoff spot with another disappointing March on the horizon for the fan base.
Therein lies the importance of Friday’s game and the one that follows quickly on Saturday.
But against a tough opponent
After stumbling and bumbling through more than half of the 2017-18 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins appear to be figuring it out just in time to make a run at a third straight Stanley Cup championship. The Penguins are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games and are suddenly only a single point behind the Washington Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. As such, the Penguins represent a tougher challenge than when the two teams matched up earlier in the season.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Pittsburgh Penguins
1) Recharged or rusty?
After two days off completely without practice and an odd four days off since their last game, Friday’s represents another restart game. I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes look rested, fresh and fast or if instead they look sloppy from the layoff.
Goaltending will continue to live in the #2 slot pretty much every game until someday it no longer does. But that is not today and not likely during the 2017-18 season (sigh). Cam Ward is the guy for better or for worse right now, so the hope is that the break has him recharged and ready to reel off a few solid games and wins.
3) More forward scoring
Other than a few scoring outbursts from defensemen, the power play and a small set of forwards, the Hurricanes have been struggling to generate offense of late. Against a Penguins team that seems to be ramping up, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can find the ignition switch for broader forward scoring and with it be able to match the Penguins on Friday night.
4) A vibe
It is impossible to measure or quantify but sometimes incredibly easy to feel. The Hurricanes need to find and maintain a higher level of intensity, determination, focus or something else such that they can play at a higher level consistently down the stretch. More intermittent bursts of strong play followed by offsetting slumps is not going to be enough to make the playoffs. Coming off three straight losses before the four-day layoff, I will be watching to see if the team seems different.
The puck drops at 7:37pm at PNC Arena.