On February 19, Hurricanes fans had their first chance to see the Toronto Maple Leafs and their rookie phenom forwards, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. The 3 forwards who are 19, 19 and 20 years old respectively all have a great chance to hit 60 points. Hurricanes fans who showed up hoping to see what the Leafs’ kids could do but also a Canes wins were half-disappointed. Matthews had a crazy goal in which he dragged a Hurricanes player to the net and then somehow finished while falling down, but the Hurricanes win part of the equation was a big miss. The Maple Leafs won going away by a 4-0 score. Before the February match up, I wrote an article comparing the Leafs and Canes in-process rebuilding programs.
The Hurricanes are coming off a big win on Thursday against the Rangers. The good guys were not perfect by any means, but the game illustrated what timely scoring can do to make decent efforts look great and get results. For those who are still clinging to the smallest of playoff hopes, the next 4 days are huge. The Hurricanes play the Maple Leafs who are ninth on Saturday and then play the Islanders who are eighth in a home and home set on Monday and Tuesday. I have been saying for awhile that to get into the playoff chase that the Hurricanes needed to reel off 6-8 straight wins to push up into the fray. Time is running out to do that and with a string of games against the teams they are chasing, now would be the time if a miracle is in the cards.
The Maple Leafs come into the game with 2 straight wins after righting the ship after 5 straight losses (3 in overtime). Sitting right at the playoff cut line, Toronto should bring the intensity for a good match up in Raleigh on Saturday night.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Hurricanes versus the Toronto Maple Leafs
1) Young leaders rising up – Jaccob Slavin and Sebastian Aho
Now 64 games into a set of 4 alternate captains leading the team, there has been recent talk about a variety of captain stuff. Will the team name a captain before the 2017-18 season? Who should be the captain? Which leaders are or will rise up down the stretch? Etc. The Thursday Coffee Shop had a poll question and some interesting debate about that. Specifically, check out the comment by minjaben; it is an interesting one. Since the start of the new year, if someone who was unfamiliar with the Hurricanes watched the games and was asked who the leaders were, I think a strong case could be made for Sebastian Aho at forward and Jaccob Slavin on defense. The young duo continues to be worth watching on a nightly basis.
2) A follow up for Valentin Zykov
He had a strong NHL debut in Thursday night’s win scoring a ‘go to the paint’, power forward type goal early, drew a penalty late and just generally played good hockey during his 11:53 of ice time. His style of play looked like something from outer space to Hurricanes fans. In the offensive zone, he did his share of work gaining, keeping and retrieving pucks, but whenever not occupied with the puck, he went to the front of the net and battled for space on top of the crease. It was eye-opening exactly how much time a player could spend doing that and how much of a difference it could make. His challenges will be staying consistent in his style of play and also being able to play the full 200 feet of the rink at NHL speed. Through 1 game, he grades out well and is definitely worth watching in his second NHL game.
3) A challenge for the defense
Toronto who was minus Mitch Marner in the February game will present a challenge for the Hurricanes blue line in terms of defending speed and being able to sort things out under pressure. Since the reconfiguration driven by the departure of Ron Hainsey via trade, the Hurricanes defense has generally played well. Saturday I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes’ defense can step up against a big challenge.
4) Special teams
Probably the biggest setback for the Hurricanes after the departure of Viktor Stalberg and Ron Hainsey has been the penalty kill. Since Hainsey’s trade, the Hurricanes have killed only 11 of 17 penalties and allowed 3 goals to the Rangers on Thursday. The Hurricanes did offset the Rangers outburst with 2 power play goals of their own, but to win consistently, the team will need to re-solidify things on the penalty kill. When special teams come into play on Saturday, I will be watching closely to see if the Hurricanes can rebound.
The puck drops at about 7:10pm after 2 national anthems at PNC Arena.