After a 4-1 loss the day after the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes have had a couple days to practice with the group that includes two trade additions (with Sami Vatanen still incoming once he returns from injury) and also two AHL call up goalies.
With the Rangers surging from below, the Canes now looking up at the playoff cut line and only 20 games remaining, urgency is increasing. ‘Must win’ is an overstatement at this early juncture of the stretch run, but I do think the Hurricanes need to win at least one of the weekend back-to-back set to avoid a bout with adversity and a ratcheting up of urgency. After Saturday’s game, the Hurricanes have an odd four-day layoff which could be well-timed for some systems work with the new players and if needed to buy time for Mrazek or Reimer to recover from injury.
But in the last quarter of the NHL season for teams at the playoff cut line, it is very much about the here and now. The here and now is a tough match up against a Colorado Avalanche team that is surging with four straight wins in trying to catch the Blues for the top record in the Western Conference. The Avalanche boast speed, skill and depth on offense which makes for a tough out for a Canes team that is trying to sort things out defensively after two key injuries on the blue line and two more in goal.
On the Hurricanes side of the ledger, today’s game is equal parts trying to figure out the new lineup quickly and also just finding a way until it can.
My watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Colorado Avalanche
The Canes deserved to lose based on the level of play of the skaters, but at the same time Alex Nedeljkovic did not do much to hold the fort or inspire confidence giving up four goals plus another that found the net but was waived off on only 16 shots. Forsberg is expected to start on Friday. The team needs to be better in front of the goalie especially early. At the same time, the goaltending needs to be better too. Ideally, the situation would be that it was okay for Nedeljkovic to take a few games to acclimate, but that is unfortunately not the case with the team’s playoff life on the line. I figured Forsberg gets one of the two starts with Nedeljkovic likely to start on Friday. But is Forsberg is going to climb from being fourth on an NHL depth chart and stake a claim to being an NHLer again, he will get no better chance than Friday. Goaltending is definitely a watch point.
2) The top line
The Avalanche will trot in a high end scoring line led by Nathan MacKinnon. Regardless of if Brind’Amour matches Aho’s line head to head with them, Aho and company need to match them. As noted above, this game is equal parts figuring out the new formula and just finding a way. If the Hurricanes are to just ‘find a way’, it will likely require a huge effort by Aho’s line. Based on how they have been playing recently, it is not an unreasonable ask.
3) The blue line
Minus Hamilton and now Pesce but plus Skjei, the blue line is a work in progress. The group struggled at times on Tuesday as an opportunistic Stars team mostly played defense and then capitalized on a few miscues. Edmundson and Skjei were both front and center in giving up a 3-on-1 in the first period. Skjei’s whiff on a puck on the side boards pretty directly found the back of the Canes net two seconds later before anyone could recover/adjust. Fleury and Edmundson at times looked like neither one wanted anything to do with the puck other than moving it laterally or chucking it up into the neutral zone for a turnover. One suggestion I had was moving Slavin to the right side. Neither Edmundson or Skjei looked great handling the puck on their off side and Slavin was a regular on his off side in college. But more so than combination tinkering, the blue line needs to solidify a bit especially with a dangerous Avalanche team in town.
The puck drops at 7:07pm for Pride Night at PNC Arena. Here is hoping that a bit of extra festive rallies the Canes to a much-needed win.