Technically, the Hurricanes cannot overtake the Penguins for third place in the Metropolitan Division, but with a win the Canes will be down only a single point to the Penguins but have two games in hand. That would put the Hurricanes in the driver’s seat for winning that third playoff slot.
Bigger picture, the Hurricanes are now up four points on the Canadiens with one game in hand for at least earning a playoff berth. In that vein, every two points puts even more pressure on the Canadiens who are already fading.
Needless to say, Tuesday’s game at PNC Arena is a HUGE one.
The Penguins recently found a rhythm, won six out of seven and climbed at least slightly above the wild card fray. But the Penguins have since lost two straight (second loss in overtime) and are now without Evgeni Malkin. Kris Letang who has been out since late February has been practicing with the team but did not play in Sunday’s game against the Flyers. Were he to return to the Penguins lineup on Tuesday, it would be a boost for their blue line.
On the Hurricanes front, the team has been in ‘just find a way’ mode of late. Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Sabres did the necessary work but was a ‘meh’ quality effort. The Hurricanes have been plagued by slow starts in a few other games and paid the price for it but continue to be in the winning column more often than not. Timing would be nice for the Hurricanes to start faster and put together a full 60 minutes in a huge game.
My watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Pittsburgh Penguins
1) A faster start and full 60 minutes
As noted above, the Hurricanes efforts of late have mostly been uneven. Most significantly, the team has had trouble finding its legs and pace in the first 10 minutes of multiple recent games. A slow start and great goaltending by Bobrovsky were enough to hand the Hurricanes a loss in Columbus, and though the Hurricanes rebounded, the start was not good against the Sabres either. On Tuesday, I will be watching to see if coaching and leadership can find a way to dial up the pace and intensity at the start. I will also be watching to see if the Hurricanes can put together their first 60-minute effort in recent times.
2) The Hurricanes forecheck
The last meeting between these two teams saw the Hurricanes win 4-0 in Pittsburgh. By my account, the score was a bit misleading. On the positive side of the ledger, the Hurricanes forecheck gave the Pens fits and led to stretches where Pittsburgh struggled mightily to advance the puck from their own end. Especially if Letang is still out the lineup, the Penguins are light on defensemen whose skill set is advancing the puck. For the Hurricanes, the best path to defending Sidney Crosby and the Penguins is not to have to defend all that much because the Pens are hemmed in their own end. On Tuesday, I will be watching to see if the Pens can make adjustments.
An interesting wild card for the Pens and other opponents with speed on the wings is the Canes dismantling by the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets recipe was to very quickly get the puck off of defensemen’s sticks and to wings working the sides of the rink. The repeated result was that a quick initial pass usually beat two Canes forecheckers. The the third Canes forward was usually stuck retreating and floating in the neutral zone at that point such that speed down the sides of rink created problems for the Hurricanes defensemen who mostly had to back off the blue line to avoid being beaten. Long story short, I am watching to see if teams that have decent speed on the wings go to school on this and attempt to exploit it.
Regardless, how effective the Hurricanes forecheck is could well determine the outcome of the game.
3) Battle of each team’s best
With Malkin out of the lineup, I would expect Brind’Amour to send a heavy helping of Jordan Staal out against Crosby. That would also free up Sebastian Aho’s line to opportunistically prey on lesser match ups and the Penguins depleted blue line. How Brind’Amour plays this raises a number of watch points.
–If Brind’Amour does in fact match Staal against Crosby, will he shuffle rookie Andrei Svechnikov to another line, or will he challenge the rookie in a huge game?
–In a big game in which Crosby knows he needs to be front and center offensively, will Staal be able to tamp down his offensive game?
–Can Sebastian Aho and his line take the other side of the challenge and lead the way offensively?
Though I would gladly accept another ‘find a way win’ or a game stolen by the Canes goalie, I really think this game is decided by two things. First is the effectiveness of the Hurricanes forecheck against a steam that lacks puck movers on defense. Second is the Hurricanes ability to put together a more complete effort with at least a decent start.
The puck drops at 7pm at PNC Arena!