First, thoughts, prayers and well wishes go out the Erik Karlsson and his wife who earlier this week lost an unborn child.
Thursday’s win offered some respite for Canes fans who had seen the #CanesCoaster at its very worst in the previous three home games. The fun and the scoring might only have been due to playing an opponent way under the .500 mark, but guess what? …The Hurricanes schedule next serves up two more similar games with a home and home against the Ottawa Senators who also sit below the Canes in the standings. Canes fans would much rather be watching intense games with playoff implications, but beggars can’t be choosers, so we will take another 6-5 win in a shinny-like game with minimal intensity.
The opponent is an Ottawa Senators team that ranks 30th in the NHL in goals allowed, so putting up 6 goals in a win seems within reason. But in addition to just hoping for fun, high-scoring hockey, the game represents another 60 minutes of ice time to continue evaluating individual players and combinations for building the 2018-19 roster.
And that initiative takes center stage in my watch points.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Ottawa Senators
In their first game together on Thursday, the trio looked like a top scoring line that had been playing together and terrorizing the NHL for years. Aho transitioned quickly back to his core as a playmaking center who created scoring chances for capable finishing wings just like he did with Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi on the Finnish team at world juniors. Valentin Zykov filled the role of a power forward who could be productive without playing much with the puck on his stick. He scored a pretty goal when he stepped into the right place to receive and finish off the rush on an Aho pass. And he figured in two uglier goals by creating havoc at the top of the crease. He was the screen on a Teravainen’s shot that surprised the goalie, and Zykov finished himself with three whacks at the puck on a rebound after he screened the goalie. And Teravainen just did a bit of everything on his way to a two-point night.
On Saturday, I will be watching for continued chemistry. Does Zykov continue to find right balance between knowing when he needs to support the puck and when he is free to head to his office at the top of the blue paint to wait for the puck to show up. If Ottawa matches up best on best, I will be watching to see if the trio can use some combination of puck possession and sound play defensively to neutralize defensively and attack offensively.
2) Skinner/Lindholm/Di Giuseppe
Despite the headline grabbing from rookie Valentin Zykov and his line mates, the Skinner/Lindholm/Di Giuseppe combination actually matched them with three goals. Lindholm had two heady passes for assists, and Skinner posted two goals. Di Giuseppe also had a big night on the score sheet with a goal and two assists. I am on record as preferring Lindholm at right wing largely because of the lack of other NHL-ready options there, and I stand by that preference. That said, Lindholm has played well at the center position and certainly seems capable of moving back to the middle. And if doing so proves him to be the elusive player who clicks with Skinner, I am intrigued and willing to consider changing course.
My watch points are a few. Can Lindholm make Skinner better or vice versa? The issue with Skinner is that he seems almost chemistry-less meaning that he does not seem to boost his line mates’ level of play nor does he seem to benefit or gain a boost from certain line mates. On Thursday, when the Hurricanes could get the puck deep and get Lindholm behind the end line, he played to his strengths as a puck distributor from a fixed position (versus off the rush). The result was a couple grade A chances for Skinner which led to one goal and also a couple grade A chances and a goal for Di Giuseppe. On Thursday, Skinner and Lindholm did benefit from playing together. I will be watching on Saturday to see if that continues. The flip side of that situation is watching to see how the line defends in situations when Lindholm gets deepest into the offensive zone such that the trio is sort of inverted defensively at any transition points. The result is that Skinner or Di Giuseppe will need to be the first defender back and in that role will be pressured to sort out responsibilities and angles defending through the neutral zone and entering the defensive zone. That has not historically been a strength for Skinner, so I will be watching to see if that trio can sort out and defend in transition.
3) Roland McKeown
In 15:03 of ice time, he was generally sound even if not spectacular. Next playing on the road, McKeown could see more unshielded shifts against higher lines. As such, Saturday could be a bigger test. I will be watching to see how McKeown plays with consideration for whether he could be a capable third pairing defenseman for the 2018-19 season either outright or at least as an injury call up.
The puck drops at 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas.