Don’t look now, but the Carolina Hurricanes are playing good hockey and mostly getting results. Sure there are a couple frustrating overtime losses sprinkled in that easily could have been wins, but the Hurricanes 8-game point streak with a 5-0-3 record is nothing to frown at. After playing consecutive games against teams roughly in the same place in the standings, the Hurricanes step up a notch on Thursday when they take on the Atlantic Division-leading Montreal Canadiens.
Despite having a playoff spot mostly in the bag early, the Canadiens come in with reason to win. Montreal is only 3 points up on Ottawa for the Atlantic Division title and home ice for at least 2 rounds of playoffs. The Canadiens are coming off an overtime loss to the Red Wings but have generally had a strong March with a 6-2-1 record. With backup Al Montoya playing against Detroit, the Hurricanes will not luck into another match up against a backup. Rather, they will likely face Carey Price.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Hurricanes versus the Montreal Canadiens
1) Skinner’s surge
The Hurricanes are a completely different team offensively when Jeff Skinner starts clicking. That is what a goal or 2 per game will do. Coming off a 2-goal game in in Tuesday’s win against Florida, Skinner has a 3-game goal scoring streak and has scored 8 goals during the Hurricanes current 8-game point streak. Especially if the Hurricanes hit a game or 2 when they just cannot muster any jump like on Sunday in Philadelphia, timely scoring from Skinner will go a long way toward giving the team a chance to steal points on tough nights.
Like many others, I have no idea which end is up right now in terms of goaltending. Lack has strung together a couple pretty good starts but still yielded Tuesday’s start to Cam Ward. (Ward’s start on Sunday made sense since it was the second half of a back to back.) Ward also has a history of playing well in Montreal. Regardless of who starts, against a good team and likely with Carey Price in the opposite net, the margin for error on Thursday is likely to be small. I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes’ netminder can put up a performance at least in the neighborhood of Carey Price’s.
3) Heroes rising up to make big plays
The Hurricanes have a ‘most likely’ list to lead the team, but sometimes it is about someone either creating a chance or finishing 1 in only 1 try. Derek Ryan’s great individual effort with the puck and feed to Jeff Skinner for the deciding goal was such a play on Tuesday. When the Canes have struggled scoring-wise, it has often been not from lack of chances but rather from lack of finishing. In the grinding part of season, I will be watching early to see which players seem to be going early skating-wise and might be candidates to make things happen.
4) The blue line on the road
The biggest Achilles’ heel on the road during the tough part of the 2016-17 season was often the inability to build a serviceable second pairing. Opposing coaches regularly picked on the Canes’ second pairing and were rewarded for it. Hainsey’s trade has mostly seen Peters start games with Slavin/Faulk and Hanifin/Pesce, but on Tuesday he very quickly went back to Slavin/Pesce which led to Hanifin/Faulk. I will be watching early to see how Peters sorts out his defense against a fairly balanced Canadiens team and what he gets for results.
The puck drops at about 7:30pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.