Through six games, I would say that the Carolina Hurricanes have played a moderately difficult schedule. Four of six have been on the road, and four of six have been against 2016-17 playoff teams.
But Tuesday’s home match up against the Tampa Bay Lightning kicks off a week that features two of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference and two teams from the Western Conference that prefer to play a heavy style that is not ideally suited for the Hurricanes’ skill set. As such, the week should prove challenging and also serve as a good measuring stick after a couple games to get up to speed.
Up first is the Tampa Bay Lightning who currently sit atop the Eastern Conference standings with a scintillating 7-1-1 record. After a disjointed and injury plagued 2016-17 season, the Lightning are healthier and proved ready to go right out of the gate. Their offense ranks second in the NHL averaging 4.0 goals per game. To put things in perspective, Nikita Kucherov’s eight even strength goals are only one shy of all of the forwards combined, and Kucherov and Stamkos’ combined 34 points are only three short of the 37 that the Carolina Hurricanes forwards have amassed in total. Yes, the Lightning have played three more games (six versus nine), but one would think the sizable manpower advantage would make up for it.)
The chance to take on a top team at home where Bill Peters can dictate match ups a bit is the focal point of ‘what’ I’m watching’ for Tuesday’s game.
‘What I’m watching for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Tampa Bay Lightning
1) Peters formula and its success
At home against team with elite top lines in 2016-17, Peters formula was to play best on best and to try to shut down the other teams’ top lines. Slavin/Pesce marked the other team’s top line, and when possible they were paired with Jordan Staal’s line. I would expect Peters to do similar on Tuesday and to possibly use Kruger’s line as an alternate if Staal’s is not available.
At home where a coach can dictate how match ups roll out having a proven formula for how to gain an edge can be significant. On Tuesday, I will be watching first to see if Peters’ tactical approach is in fact similar to 2016-17. If so, I will be watching to see how effective it is against a very tough test in Tampa Bay. After what I thought was a tough outing at least early on against another elite line in Benn/Seguin/Radulov on Saturday, I will also be looking for a rebound by Slavin/Pesce.
2) More contributors
As noted by the Kucherov and Stamkos’ comparisons above, the Hurricanes still have a number of players who are not clicking offensively yet. As a result the Hurricanes currently sit 24th in the NHL in scoring at 2.7 goals per game despite a power play that has quietly crept up to 13th out of 31. Beyond Jeff Skinner, the Hurricanes forwards have scored only four goals at even strength. That is not enough. Stuck on zero even strength goals through six games are Justin Williams, Elias Lindholm, Sebastian Aho, Derek Ryan, Brock McGinn, Marcus Kruger, Josh Jooris and Janne Kuokkanen. The scoring-capable players need to find a higher gear, and/or Peters needs to find combinations that click or something else to manufacture more offense. This week will be tough sledding if the aim is to try to win 2-1. On Tuesday, I will be watching to see what Peters tries for line combinations and also if he can coax more offense out of them on home ice.
3) A home ice spark
The Hurricanes are off to a very respectable 1-0-1 start at home. Tuesday represents a chance to return from a reasonably long and reasonably successful road trip and immediately capitalize on home ice. Especially after a lackluster start that doomed the game from outset in Dallas on Saturday night, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can come out with jump and aggressiveness on Tuesday.
AMPED UP FOR HOME HOCKEY LATE ADDITION (4pm)
The more I think about Tuesday’s match up against Tampa Bay, the more I think this is a huge ‘stake in the sand’ kind of game for Aho/Staal/Lindholm and also Slavin/Pesce.
If you take the current team at face value and consider them to a be a team that is at best average offensively and combine that with it being critical to find a repeatable winning formula at home, I think it begins and ends with Peters playing best (defensive group) on best (other teams’ top scoring lines) at home and either winning or breaking even on this tough match up. That puts the ball on the tee for some combination of Jeff Skinner, the power play, intermittent depth scoring or even just a lucky bounce or two to generate a winning record at home. That is exactly what Peters has tried to do and accomplished reasonably successfully over the past two seasons. Rough math says that the Hurricanes are capable. The teams’ 23-12-6 home record in 2016-17 is roughly playoff-worthy and needs to be the foundation upon which 2017-18 success is built.
That puts Aho/Staal/Lindholm and Slavin/Pesce front and center and facing a maximum level challenge on Tuesday night against the red hot scoring juggernaut that is the October 2017 Tampa Bay Lightning.
Sebastian Aho was quiet, too quiet, on the four-game road trip and like 2016-17 is off to a slow start in terms of goal scoring. (He has zero.) Elias Lindholm’s four points make for a very respectable mid-50s scoring pace, but per my Daily Cup of Joe article for today, my jury is still out on whether he has carried the tenacity and intensity that was the core of his 2016-17 success into the 2017-18 season. And Slavin/Pesce have been incredibly good in total but were victimized by another elite scoring line in Benn/Seguin/Radulov in Saturday’s road trip-ending loss.
Tonight is not so much about scoring or statistics. It is more about a basic read on whether Bill Peters’ preferred home ice model can stand up to a tough test. There might be a path to squeaking into the playoffs by mostly being consistent against lesser teams, but the version of the 2017-18 Hurricanes that is more than an early April hope will need to be capable of creating a winning formula and also having a reasonable degree of success with it against top teams.
Tonight represents a challenge and a measuring stick in that regard.
The puck drops at 7:07pm at PNC Arena.