For those who checked out from Hurricanes hockey in time for hoops hysteria in March the past couple years, it was hard to blame them. But this season it is a shame that a part of the fan base that we need back at PNC Arena on a more regular basis is missing an absolutely wonderful hockey story that significantly points to a bright future.

Consider that:

* Right now, the Canes defense features 3 rookies none of whom were old enough to legally have a beer when the season started now anchoring 3/4 of the team’s top 4 on defense.

* Despite trading away 3 key players and losing 2 more to injury, the team has not lost in regulation since the all-star break and is 3-0-3 in those 6 games.

* That though the odds are long, the Canes are still playing games that matter for the 2015-16 season.


It is against that positive backdrop that the Canes will take to the ice for game 4 of 5 on the team’s last big road trip. On Thursday, the Canes will match up against the Penguins who are in a little bit better position currently sitting in a playoff spot but also desperately needing points to stay there and similarly battling roster issues with the absence of Evgeni Malkin. The Pens have not been dominant, but they have been finding a way more often than not with a 7-3 record in their last 10. Let by a strong season by Marc-Andre Fleury and a coaching change rejuvenation by Sidney Crosby, the Pens seem to be on track to claim a playoff spot.


For another huge hockey game in March buried underneath the buzz of the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, here is what I will be watching:


1) Kids against Sid

Without Malkin being the driving force of a second scoring line, the Pens are not nearly as deep offensively and Crosby gets even more attention. With Pittsburgh on home ice and dictating match ups, 1 would expect the Pens to steer him away from Jaccob Slavin (likely with Ron Hainsey if he returns from illness) and toward a second pairing that is even younger (likely Hanifin/Pesce). Whoever sees the ice against Crosby’s line will need to keep him from being a 1-man scoring machine.


2) Heroes

I said in a recent post, that a final Canes surge would require a couple heroes to pick up the undermanned bunch and lift it to a higher level. There are signs of hope on this front. Jordan Staal had a huge goal that was good enough to get the Canes a point on Tuesday. Jeff Skinner and his line with Victor Rask and Phil Di Giuseppe continues to buzz offensively. And on Tuesday Eddie Lack was incredibly good. To push higher, I think it takes a couple superhero like individual efforts to get the Canes above the recent fray of grinding into overtime.


3) The ongoing try out

This game represents another step in the 2016-17 try out process that is happening inside of 2015-16 season games that still matter. I thought that Brody Sutter looked the best of the 3 wing try outs (others were McGinn and Woods) because of his strong positional play and greater ability to get to/finish checks that were early enough to force pressured decisions by opponents with the puck. Noah Hanifin will continue his run in the top 4 likely back with Brett Pesce. And the collection of depth forwards playing on the bottom 2 lines will continue their efforts to stake a claim to a place on the 2016-17 team.

Of the AHL call ups and soon-to-be free agents, Riley Nash is the player I like best so far, and Brody Sutter is the 1 I will be watching most closely on Thursday, as it is only his second game at the NHL level this season.


4) A better start

Of late, the Canes have struggled out of the gate. On Tuesday in Washington, the young Hurricanes lineup looked completely overwhelmed for most of the first period and survived it only by virtue of being pretty good positionally/breakdown-wise under duress in their own end and leaning really heavily on Eddie Lack who stood tall. The slow starts have been a theme recently, so here is hoping that the Canes can find jump and a higher gear out of the gate in Pittsburgh and not have to do some combination of surviving and playing from a deficit.


The puck drops at 7pm right about the time the evening basketball games start popping up. Are you strong enough to do the #Redvolution during the basketball frenzy? Or at least DVR it and watch once the basketball quiets.


Go Canes!

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