With the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline now in the rear view mirror, the stretch run for the 2018-19 season begins in earnest.
Of the Hurricanes’ wild card competition, the Columbus Blue Jackets made the biggest move just in keeping Sergei Bobrovksy and Artemi Panarin and then going all in by adding Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to the mix. At least on paper, the Blue Jackets are significantly better than they were a week ago and look nothing like the ‘blow it up’ possibility that seemed to exist only a couple weeks ago. The Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins added as well but only depth players.
None of that changes the fact that the Hurricanes currently sit in the final wild card spot and are playing the best hockey of these four teams right now.
Back on the ice, the Hurricanes take on the Los Angeles Kings tonight at PNC Arena. The Kings played last night and traveled and are mired in an eight-game losing streak (three in overtime or a shootout). But the Kings pushed the NHL-leading Lightning to overtime last night. And the Hurricanes know well that ‘should win’ is not automatic in the NHL with recent losses to the Devils and Rangers.
Nonetheless, the match up is favorable, and the game is definitely a game that would hopefully end up in the win column.
On the Hurricanes side of the ledger, the team has been incredibly productive of late. A pair of road wins last week pushed the Canes to 8-2 in their last ten games. And after some wins that were opportunistic and/or stolen by hot goaltending, the Hurricanes played what I think was their based game in a couple weeks in Saturday’s 3-0 win over the Dallas Stars. The Hurricanes ideally repeat that effort on Tuesday, but if another ‘whatever it takes’ effort yields an odd win that counts just as much in the ‘just win’ segment of the season.
My watch points for Tuesday’s game follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Los Angeles Kings
1) A killer instinct
As noted above, the Kings just are not a great hockey team right now. The good version of the Hurricanes is better than whatever version of the Kings shows up. But nothing is automatic. In games like this, the key is play loose and attack. Any hesitation or cautiousness tends to play down to the opponent’s level. So on Tuesday, I will watch early to see if the Hurricanes are in fact the aggressor.
2) The blue line driving play
Aside from the goaltending which has been solid in total and spectacular at times, the Canes blue line has been the other greatest strength of late. With Hamilton picking up the pace offensively since the midway point and Faulk dialed in with his shot right now, the offensive has dialed up the offense a notch or two which is a huge benefit for a team that is light on high-end scoring talent. In addition, the group has been solid defensively. On Tuesday, I will be watching to see if the blue line can continue to lead the way.
3) Sebastian Aho
When crunch time comes in March in the NHL, good teams quite often are led and even carried by their best players. That is part of the reason why teams like the Penguins tend to rise not fall this time of year. Sebastian Aho has been strong all season and has for stretches been the kind of elite player who can carry his team. Of late, Aho has been more steady than spectacular. No doubt, he is contributing and playing well, but he does have a higher gear than the 0 goals and 9 assists that he has in the past 10 games. With only 20 games to go and the playoffs very much in reach, timing is perfect for Aho to find a quick burst of 4-6 games where he goes off on the score sheet. On Tuesday, I will be watching for signs that Sebastian is in fact ready to put the team on his back for parts of this critical stretch of hockey.
4) Rod Brind’Amour
The stretch of schedule through mid-February is interesting. From Sunday through February 23, the Canes play only 9 times in 23 days, but the run features three consecutive weekends with back-to-back sets with travel on Friday and Saturday. That leaves a number of two and three-day gaps between games. With this scheduling, does Brind’Amour shorten the bench a bit in the gap games? Does he just stick with the reasonably balanced ice time that has been working? Or…? I will be watching for an early indication based on how Brind’Amour handles ice time tonight with two days off both before and after the game.
The puck drops at 7pm at PNC Arena.