After pulling even with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Capitals on Tuesday, the Caps pulled away for a 4-1 win in the third period somewhat like the loss to the Lightning the previous week. The Hurricanes are good enough to play with these elite teams, but pushing over the top and into the win column is challenging. On Thursday, the Hurricanes receive their fourth and final chance to beat the Capitals which is especially interesting since the current standings have the Canes playing the Caps for four or more games in the first round of the playoffs.
But not putting the cart before the horse, the Hurricanes clearly have work to do yet to even make the playoffs. With Tuesday’s loss and wins by Montreal and Columbus, the Hurricanes still maintain the first wild card position, but the gap narrowed. The Hurricanes lead Montreal by one point with a game in hand and Columbus by three points with no games in hand. Those two teams play each other tonight which guarantees one of them two points but also means that one will lose at least a point. Also guaranteed is that the Hurricanes will wake up tomorrow 77 games into the 2018-19 season still in playoff position regardless of the outcome on Thursday.
But obviously the Hurricanes need to collect more points to make the playoffs, and Thursday’s game offers up a chance for two more. Six times since January 18, the Hurricanes have lost in regulation. And six times since January 18, the Hurricanes have rebounded immediately with a win in the next game. Thursday’s opponent represents a tough challenge, but there is no reason to believe that this team is not capable of winning a big game following a loss.
With a lot at stake, here are my watch points.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Washington Capitals
1) Defensive details in the defensive zone
The 2018-19 Hurricanes are capable of matching even the best teams in terms of pace and pressure such that they can play these teams even in terms of puck possession and zone time for extended stretches. If the game were decided by that, the Hurricanes would be on even ground. But where elite teams like Washington, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg and others sometimes have an advantage is ability and efficiency in generating grade A chances from being set up in the offensive zone. Washington has two top-tier playmakers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Washington also has two incredibly good finishers in Alexander Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie. That combination gives the Capitals the ability to just weather the storm for stretches and then strike quickly like a rattle snake when given a couple chances to set up in the offensive zone. The best defense for this is to play in the offensive zone, but the Hurricanes will also need to tighten up their defensive zone coverage that cost them a couple times on Tuesday. As such, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can handle the details consistently in their own end on Thursday night.
2) Heroes rising up
Washington’s win on Tuesday featured a huge night by Kuznetsov who was the best player in the game. The Caps also received goals from Ovechkin, Oshie and Carlson. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes top line was deafeningly quiet. Whispers that Sebastian Aho might be battling some kind of injury are becoming louder. What stands out to me right now is his tendency to pull up and look for trailers with the puck on his stick entering the offensive zone. His starting point in the NHL was that type of playing from just inside the offensive blue line, but the 2018-19 version 2.0 of Aho has, until recently, been much more apt to attack with speed from the blue line in. Regardless of if there is a physical issue, the Hurricanes desperately need a couple great games from its greatest players including Aho. On Thursday, I will be watching to see if the Canes first line can rise up and also to see if a couple other heroes can emerge in yet another huge game.
3) The right kind of desperation
The peak version of the Carolina Hurricanes is the one that dictates play with an aggressive forecheck that both generates offense and limits the need to play defense. With an opponent that will require a peak effort for a win, now is not the time to try to cautiously play the way to a win. The Hurricanes need to get their forecheck going and use it fuel success. On Thursday, I will be watching from the opening face-off to see if the Hurricanes can leverage a strong forecheck to get the upper hand against a team that is capable of moving the puck against pressure.
4) Special teams
The Hurricanes avoided a special teams battle on Tuesday keeping the Capitals to only two power plays and not allowing a goal and scoring before a power play with an extra attacker on. Ideal would be to again play the Capitals to nearly 60 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, but if and when special teams come into play, they could be significant. I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can avoid unnecessary penalties and also to see how they look on the power play after another rough patch in that regard.
The puck drops at 7pm at PNC Arena.