Amidst the noise of the start of March Madness, tonight the Carolina Hurricanes will take on the Minnesota Wild and in the process their former captain Eric Staal. The return of Eric Staal creates a bit of extra buzz ranging from excitement to happiness to see him to people simply grumbling about the unnecessary fuss.
Yesterday I posted my thoughts on Eric Staal’s return.
And in addition to a couple more forward-looking polls and discussions, the Thursday Coffee Shop also has a couple Eric Staal entries.
Aside from the Eric Staal event, the game represents the first game against the upstart Minnesota Wild this season. Up until very recently, the Wild were leading the Central Division. Minnesota has since been passed by Chicago but is still among the top 3 teams in the Western Conference. But for them, the season is really all about the playoffs and finding a way to push past the Blackhawks and other teams who have always beaten them out for conference finals and Stanley Cup Finals appearances.
On the Hurricanes side, much of the fan base let mostly let go of the 2016-17 season during 1 of the recent losing streaks, but Coach Bill Peters is very much still aiming for a playoff miracle. This is evident by the degree to which he has shortened his bench in some recent games and could also be inferred from his decision to start Cam Ward over Eddie Lack in the second half of a back-to-back earlier this week.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Hurricanes versus the Minnesota Wild
Following my recent ‘building for 2017-18’ theme, here are my watch points for tonight’s game:
1) Noah Hanifin
He has generally stepped up his game since the Hurricanes moved him into the top 4 with the departure of Ron Hainsey. He had 1 rough ‘growing pains’ type night awhile back but otherwise has been pretty good. I called Tuesday a mixed bag for him. He did not have a horrible game overall, but a few of the ‘attention to detail’ type issues that have plagued his 2016-17 season crept back into his game. Per Jaccob Slavin’s recent “consistency” mantra, I will be watching on Thursday to see if Noah Hanifin can post another solid game.
2) Lucas Wallmark
Now 2 games deep in his NHL career, we have at least some NHL action to begin evaluating Lucas Wallmark at this early stage of his career. On the ‘still needs work’ side of the ledger, Wallmark is average at best in terms of straight line speed and maybe more significantly acceleration/quickness getting started. In that area of his game, I am not sure he rates much different than Jay McClement. He has proven to be pretty solid positionally and in terms of sorting things out which is a vital ingredient to playing 2-way hockey in the NHL with average-ish or less speed. (Note that Victor Rask does just fine defensively without being fleet-footed, so it is possible.) On the positive side of the ledger, Wallmark has been able to put himself in scoring situations at a high rate. He has collected only 1 assist and no goals in his 2 games, but he shown a knack for finding soft spots in front of the net and had a 3-4 good or better scoring chances for his work. If he continues to find the puck on his stick in high-danger areas, goals will come. In that scoring potential regard, Wallmark would rate significantly higher than Jay McClement who is fairly limited offensively.
If the lines stay the same, this is the line has been clicking of late. I will be watching to see if Jeff Skinner can find an end of season surge and maybe make a late push for 30 goals. In addition, Lindholm continues to impress. His goal scoring is still light (though he did have a nifty goal on Tuesday), but it is almost as if an intensity/physicality switch flipped in his game somewhere just before the midway point of the season. He continues his positive trend, and I credit him for making strides as a player so far in 2016-17. On Thursday night, I will be watching this line closely.
The puck drops at 7pm at PNC Arena right in the middle of the March Madness fray. Is it still hockey for you? Or are you taking a brief hiatus for basketball chaos?