Important scheduling note — Tonight’s game is an odd 5pm Saturday start, so if you have dinner plans, set your DVR.
Today is game 62 – officially the last quarter and stretch run for the 2018-19 season.
The Hurricanes enter the last quarter one point out of a playoff spot needing to catch only one of Pittsburgh and Columbus. The Hurricanes have played the same number of games as the Penguins and one fewer than Columbus.
The importance of each and ever game and each and every point in the standings is obvious.
On Saturday night in Dallas, the Hurricanes get a chance to pick up two more in a rematch of last Saturday’s win in against the Stars at PNC Arena. Despite being five points behind the Hurricanes, the Stars enter the game firmly in the first wild card slot in the weaker Western Conference. The Stars are coming off a big win over St. Louis but otherwise have been sputtering a bit with a 2-4-1 record in their last seven games.
The Hurricanes more than anything just continue to find ways to win. Strong goaltending has been a regular theme. Other than that it is has been an odd mix of opportunistic scoring and just always making a key play or two when needed. As I said on Twitter after the win over Florida on Thursday:
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) February 22, 2019
Ideally, this team will put it all together and find a higher gear, but in terms of looking at any single game, just finding any kind of way to win is more important right now.
My watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Dallas Stars
1) The blue line as a catalyst
Scoring has been sporadic of late with a couple quick starts and a couple late-game goal outbursts. Mixed into up and down efforts offensive, the blue line is becoming the two-way strength that has been anticipated for a few years. Dougie Hamilton has regularly plays as a fourth forward up in the play in the offensive zone and generally has good timing for when and when not to join. Justin Faulk has been shooting the puck well. He had a huge power play goal on Thursday and also has a post and a few other near misses in recent games. Jaccob Slavin has a post on the power play too and also a couple great stretch passes to spring breakaways. For a team that is light on pure offensive talents at the forward position, ‘the blue line as a catalyst’ is probably the most viable theme for high-end scoring from this group. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes defense can continue to lead the way offensively.
2) The face-off circle
Maybe it is just because Jordan Staal is visible again and close to returning, but the Canes inability to win key face-offs especially late in the game has stood out like a sore thumb in recent games. The headline numbers that show the Hurricanes in the 40s for face-off win percentage do not seem catastrophic, but the team’s inability to win big draws has been a hindrance. Late in the Rangers loss, the Hurricanes struggled to win key offensive zone draws to notch a tying goal, and late in the Panthers win, the Hurricanes struggled to win defensive zone draws while barely holding on for a win. Saturday’s win over the Stars last Saturday was a low point with the Canes winning only 35% of draws. Chasing the puck much of the night was a significant factor in the Canes being outplayed and more or less stealing a win because of goaltending. Whether Staal returns or not, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can improve in the face-off circle and because of that play with the puck more.
3) Sebastian Aho
Against an opponent that also has a high-end first line with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, the winner of games like this is often the team whose best players play the best. Sebastian Aho has been a steady contributor of late, but has not had one of those games where he puts the team on his back and carries it of late. Timing is perfect for Aho to have another of those short runs when he goes off, and his line drives the team to a win.
4) Jordan Staal
After a few maybe games and most of a week of regular practices, Jordan Staal is expected to return tonight (per team website). On the one hand, a bit of patience is in order with him missing more than two months of hockey. On the other hand and as I wrote in my Daily Cup of Joe on Friday, I think the timing could be perfect for Staal to make a leadership statement in the next week or so that pumps fuel into the locker room for the stretch run. I will be watching both to see how Brind’Amour uses Staal in his first game back and also how he looks in his first game since December.
As noted above, the puck drops at an early 5pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.