After a run of six straight losses that put the 2017-18 season in jeopardy, the Hurricanes built on gaining an overtime loss point in the last game and followed it up with two straight wins. On Sunday at 7pm at PNC Arena, the Carolina Hurricanes will try to extend their three-game point streak against another tough competitor in the Winnipeg Jets.
With only 17 games remaining in the 2017-18 season, each and every game is a big one right now. The Hurricanes past two wins coupled with the Blue Jackets struggling on the West Coast, the Eastern Conference standings now show the Hurricanes sitting in the final playoff spot by virtue of winning a tiebreaker over the Blue Jackets. As noted in the recap for Friday’s win, both the Canes and Jackets are probably really chasing the Florida Panthers who are down a point in the standings but with three games and potentially six points in hand.
While scoreboard watching is definitely a part of it, the biggest thing right now is to build on the current winning streak.
The opponent is an upstart team in the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets are equipped with both high-end scorers and depth such that they are third in the NHL in scoring entering the game. Combined with strong goaltending by Connor Hellebuyck and a veteran defensive core, the Jets are becoming a trendy team to go deep in the playoffs.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Winnipeg Jets
1) Continuation of pace and intensity
A hallmark of the past two wins has been a Carolina Hurricanes team that to a man has played a full 60 minutes with a higher gear and intensity level. Finishing has still been hard to come by, but by playing an aggressive brand of hockey, the weekend version of the Hurricanes has won the puck possession game and taken away time and space for the stretches when they did not have the puck. More so than defending well, the path to strong defensive hockey for the Hurricanes comes from defending less. On Sunday, I will be watching to see if the Canes can bring the same pace and pressure to bear on a good hockey team capable of matching it.
Coach Bill Peters deviated from splitting back-to-back starts between Cam Ward and Scott Darling when he played Ward in both Thursday and Friday’s wins. Ward was sharp in both games and figures to go again on Sunday. Especially playing in his third game in four nights against a good offensive hockey team, I will be watching to see if Ward is sharp again and can continue to be a steady force that instills confidence.
The Hurricanes have faced and defeated a couple teams this week that relied heavily on a dominant scoring line. The Flyers had Giroux/Couturier/Voracek, and the Devils had Taylor Hall’s line. Both of those games featured special attention to shut down a top group, especially Friday’s win over the Devils with Peters working to get Staal’s line and Slavin/Pesce out against Taylor Hall all night. But Winnipeg presents a different challenge as a team that has elite scoring but also a ton of scoring depth. It will not be enough for Jordan Staal and his line to have a great night defensively. The Hurricanes will need to be solid top to bottom in a game where the weakest link could decide it. It will be interesting to see if Peters plays it more like a road game and splits Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce to gain more balance. If not, the spotlight will be on the Hurricanes second defense pairing which reunited Noah Hanifin and Justin Faulk on Friday just like last March. Regardless, on Sunday I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can match the Jets depth and balance.
4) Offensive balance
After a second half of February that was light on scoring participants at forward, March has started with a bit more balance. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are rolling right now, but Justin Williams scored twice on Thursday and added an empty-netter on Friday. And Derek Ryan and his line with Victor Rask and Lee Stempniak were very good offensively on Friday, and Ryan scored his first goal since January on a deserved break. On Sunday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can continue adding contributors offensively and equally importantly if they can more of the finishing that has been elusive during much of the season.
The puck drops at 7:07pm at PNC Arena.