With a near-perfect (gave Pens an OTL point) 2-0 start to a critical five-game home stand, the Hurricanes will next face the best of the best in the Tampa Bay Lightning. If the team was based in Canada, the hockey world would be regularly debating where this team rates among the best teams of the past few decades. With eight games to go, the Lightning have already have 118 points which would have been good enough to win the President’s Trophy for the 2017-18 season.
Timing-wise, there is at least a chance that the Hurricanes will catch the Lightning with the door cracked open. Tampa Bay emerged from a battle of the Eastern Conference titans with the Capitals on Tuesday with a hard-fought 5-4 overtime win. With the travel and quick turnaround, is it possible that the Hurricanes could catch the Lightning with a bit of a letdown and maybe weary legs? One can hope.
But regardless, games are decided on the ice not in the standings, and the Hurricanes have been faring well in that regard too. The ‘just find a way’ Hurricanes have a chance against any team in hockey right now.
My watch points for the game follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Tampa Bay Lightning
1) The best defense is a good offense
Trying to defend the Lightning to a low goal total is almost certainly to be unfruitful. The way to beat a great and deep offensive team like the Lightning is not so much to defend their attacks but rather to stay on the offensive and be the attacker. The Hurricanes did that well in Tampa Bay awhile back and seemed to have a win in hand past the halfway point before it slipped away. I thought the Hurricanes were too cautious in a big game against the Penguins despite the favorable result. On Thursday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can get back to playing an aggressive, attacking brand of hockey.
2) Special teams
The up and down Hurricanes special teams have been more down than up recently. The power play failed to convert on key power plays at the end of regulation and overtime and in general has not been that sharp of late. Especially against a Lightning team that is loaded offensively, special teams could be the difference. Ideal would be to stick to 5-on-5 hockey, but when special teams opportunities arise, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can play even or better against a great team.
3) Pace and pressure
Piggy-backing on #1 a bit, the Hurricanes should have the advantage physically. After some lackluster starts in recent games (not so much the Penguins game), I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can dial things up from the beginning and can maintain their pace and intensity for a full 60 minutes.
4) Attention to detail on defense
Arguably, the biggest challenge with beating a team like the Lightning is how quickly they can strike with just a handful of defensive mistakes. The game can be going well and then turn on a dime when the Lightning capitalize quickly on a couple chances to reverse the scoreboard. On Thursday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can stay steady defensively throughout and/or if Curtis McElhinney can make a couple big saves when needed.
The puck drops at 7pm at PNC Arena.