The busy March schedule continues on Saturday in week mostly at home that has featured headliners on the opposing roster every night. Last Saturday was rookie phenom Auston Matthews and other young stars on the Maple Leafs. Tuesday was John Tavares. Thursday was another Eric Staal return and all of the noise that goes with that. And Saturday Hurricanes fans will see P.K. Subban in a Predators’ jersey for the first time in Raleigh. Or if you prefer to stay in the ‘Hurricanes history’ book, Saturday features the return of Peter Laviolette.
For the Hurricanes, the game also closes out a burst of home-heavy schedule before the next burst on the road. In the past 5 games with 4 of those at home, the good guys have collected points in all 5 with a 3-0-2 record. If not for the Hurricanes run of 5 straight failures to pick up an extra point in overtime, the home stretch could have been even better. Saturday represents the last chance to capitalize on home ice before the team hits the road for 4 straight next week.
The Predators come into the game pretty firmly entrenched in a playoff spot and with a 3-game winning streak and a 5-game point streak.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Hurricanes versus the Nashville Predators
Coach Bill Peters through a curve ball on Tuesday when he turned to Cam Ward in the second half of a back-to-back with travel when most expected him to turn to Eddie Lack. The Hurricanes won that game and also won again on Thursday when Peters went back to Lack. After a strong outing and win in Thursday’s win, I would expect Peters to start Lack on Saturday, but with a Saturday/Sunday back-to-back on the schedule, who plays which game could be a function of preferred match ups. Regardless, goaltending continues to be important and worth watching down the stretch of the 2016-17 partly because of its role in individual games and partly because it leads into summer decisions. In my Daily Cup of Joe (written before Lack’s win on Thursday), I said that my best guess is that Lack is either traded or more likely bought out this summer so Francis can add another goalie. But with 14 games left to play and Lack expected to get his share of work, that opinion is subject to change in the next month.
2) Blue line watch, especially Noah Hanifin and Ryan Murphy
A regular watch point has been the reworked Hurricanes blue line after the departure of Ron Hainsey. In total, the results have been positive. Most significantly, Noah Hanifin raised his level of play when challenged by top 4 ice time and match ups. But in the past couple games Hanifin’s occasional struggles with attention to detail in his own end have crept back into his game. Another watch point on defense has been Ryan Murphy. He has not been perfect, but I continue to be encouraged by the fact that he is at least playing the skating and attacking brand of hockey that is his hope to become an NHL regular. In consecutive games, Murphy has drawn obstruction type penalties by carrying the puck deep into the offensive zone with speed and making defenders uncomfortable.
On Saturday, I will be looking for a bit of a rebound defensively for Hanifin and also to see if Murphy can take the next step and utilize his skating to generate scoring.
That line reunited from a long run together in 2015-16 and also shorter runs this season has been the Hurricanes best offensively in recent games. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if they can continue to drive the offense.
The puck drops right at about 7:07pm at PNC Arena right in the middle of the weekend’s March Madness.