On Thursday, the Hurricanes were beaten by the ultimate 2018-19 measuring stick in the Tampa Bay Lightning. But courtesy of an extended winning run and also two straight wins to start the home stand, the Hurricanes are still in great position in the playoff race.
Sitting in the first wild card slot, the Hurricanes are up two points with a game in hand over Montreal and are up three points with a game in hand over Columbus. The Hurricanes need to beat out only one of those two teams to win a playoff berth. Looking up, third place in the Metropolitan Division is also still within range especially since the Hurricanes have another game against the Pens.
Put more succinctly, the Hurricanes are in a tremendous place right now and control their own destiny.
That resumes on Saturday with the Minnesota Wild visiting PNC Arena. (Insert a face showing significant pain) Because of the relative weakness in the Western Conference, the Wild enter the game with eight points fewer but still in playoff position. Clinging to that playoff spot and with a 1-2-2 record in their last five games, the Wild should be a desperate and hungry team.
On the Hurricanes side, the team just needs to put the loss to the Lightning in the rear view mirror and keep doing what it has been for some time now. The bigger game looms on Sunday against the Canadiens but each and every two points is critical right now.
My watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Minnesota Wild
1) Pace and tenacity
The Minnesota Wild have been sputtering a bit of late but won a huge game in Washington on Friday night. On the one hand, Minnesota should enter the game with a more positive vibe. On the other hand, hopefully they are a half step slower with the back-to-back with travel. Timing would be great for the Hurricanes to dial up one of the ‘just overwhelm them’ type of efforts that we have seen here and there. At a minimum, the Hurricanes should have a small physical advantage early and/or late. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can push pace and ride a tenacious forecheck to an advantage that results in a win.
2) Special teams
With special teams this time of year, it is not so much raw percentages as it is scoring a power play goal that changes the direction of a game. The Hurricanes lost the special teams battle by two goals to the Lightning on Thursday and sure enough lost by two goals (not counting the empty-netter). In addition, with a 2-1 lead the Hurricanes had three minutes of power play ice time. Might a power play goal and a two-goal lead have led to a different outcome? We will never know, but no doubt a plus or minus for special teams scoring often tips the outcome in tight games between playoff contenders this time of year. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can win the special teams battle.
It will be interesting to see how Brind’Amour utilizes his goalies this weekend. Petr Mrazek is at the absolute top of his game right now. Curtis McElhinney is coming off of a ‘meh’ outing with some shakiness in it admittedly against a great hockey team. Were it a single game this weekend, no doubt it would be Mrazek’s turn again. But with a back-to-back set and the bigger game on Sunday night, how will Brind’Amour play it? His track record thus far would definitely suggest a split of the two games. If he goes that route, will he have Mrazek for Sunday’s game? Or is there a chance that Brind’Amour steps away from the two-goalie platoon for the first time since McElhinney returned from injury? I will be watching to see how Brind’Amour manages the weekend and also to see how Saturday’s goalie plays.
The puck drops at 7pm at PNC Arena.