Entering game #75, the Hurricanes currently sit in the first wild slot in the Eastern Conference. The Montreal Canadiens who are game #75’s opponent enter the game sitting in the second wild card slot. But the gap for both teams is tiny with the Columbus Blue Jackets only a couple points back.
Needless to say, Sunday’s game is yet another of a recent run of “biggest of the year”.
Add in Pride Night for the Hurricanes at PNC Arena, and go get yourself a ticket if you do not have one already.
With a win, the Hurricanes continue on their current path of controlling their own destiny and even having some margin for error. With a loss, the Hurricanes take a step down toward Columbus and the wrong side of the playoff cut line. The fact that the Hurricanes have a challenging home and home series against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Capitals increases the importance of getting another win on Sunday.
The match up on Sunday against Montreal is a reasonably fair back-to-back. Both teams played the night before. But the Hurricanes do get an advantage physically in that Montreal played at home and had to fly, get through customs and deal with buses and hotels before resting. The Hurricanes had only the 20-ish minute car commute home. But this time of year, those kind of things often fade into the background as teams just find a way to gain an upper hand.
The Canadiens sputtered a bit in early March and played their way out of playoff position but have rebounded and come in with a three-game winning streak. The Hurricanes are trying to finish off a critical five-game home stand with only a loss to the league’s best for a blemish.
Both teams need this game. Both teams are playing well right now. Sunday’s game sets up as a great one.
My watch points follow:
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Montreal Canadiens
1) A continuation in terms of solid play
The past month of so of the Hurricanes winning run could in many games be best described as ‘just find a way’. The team won a handful of games it did not deserve because of stand on your head level of goaltending. The team won some other games where short bursts, a couple key plays or 30-40 minutes of strong play proved to be enough. But as I noted in my game recap, I thought Saturday’s win over Minnesota was the team’s most even and complete effort in some time. The Canes were solid even in unspectacular i the first period. They dialed it up a notch in the second period. And with a one-goal lead in the third period, the Canes played with an attacking killer instinct and ran away with the game. With a huge game on Sunday and also the two-game set with the Capitals looming, I will be watching on Sunday to see if the Hurricanes can repeat the 60-minute effort from Saturday’s win.
As I said on Twitter shortly after Saturday’s win, it will be interesting to see what Brind’Amour does in net. The plan all season has been to split back-to-backs, so that would be the status quo. But with the stakes of this game and with Petr Mrazek surging, my hunch is that Brind’Amour and goalie coach Mike Bales will deviate and go right back to Mrazek. That would be a significant fork in the road in terms of the goalie rotation. Mrazek was a starter in Detroit, so playing both halves of a back-to-back would not be brand new to him, but it would be uncharted territory for the 2018-19. Mrazek has played on consecutive days during the 2018-19 season exactly zero times. Regardless of who starts, the stakes are high which adds a level of pressure and makes goaltending critical. On paper, goaltending would figure to be an advantage for Montreal because of Carey Price, but with how well the Canes goalies have played the reality of that advantage is somewhere between slim and non-existent.
It is just a hunch, but if Brind’Amour was dead set on splitting the starts before Saturday’s games, I think he would have saved Mrazek for Sunday which is the bigger game. As such, my guess is that we do see Mrazek again.
Regardless, On Sunday, I will be watching to see if Brind’Amour deviates from the norm and starts Mrazek. I will also be watching to see if the Hurricanes goaltending strength continues as the pressure increases and against a strong opposing goalie.
3) Special teams
One fly in the ointment of late has been up and down special teams play. The Hurricanes were minus 2 on special teams against Tampa Bay and were minus 1 against Minnesota despite the resounding win. Coupled with the fact that the Hurricanes have been sloppy in terms of taking penalties recently, and special teams continue to be every game watch point.
4) Balance of intensity and looseness
In games like this, the goal is to play an amped up version of a regular game. This is especially true for the Hurricanes who have been successful of late. Though the end result was favorable, I did not like the Hurricanes start to the first or third periods versus Pittsburgh. I thought the team was too cautious. The peak version of the Carolina Hurricanes is the one where they disrupt and dictate play with an aggressive forecheck. I think the risk that the Hurricanes face as it tries to transition its success to bigger games like now and hopefully the playoffs is that they try too hard to be safe and sound early and in the process ease off the pedal too much and give up what is potentially their greatest strength and what is core to their style of play. So getting to the point, as the stakes increase down the stretch and hopefully into the playoffs, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can find the right combination of being sound and steady but not compromising on their aggressive forechecking, puck-hounding style to do so.
The puck drops at about 7:10pm at PNC Arena after two national anthems.