On Saturday, the Hurricanes mustered a good bounce back win over the Flyers after consecutive losses to the Capitals had upset the team’s prior rhythm.
Setting the stage
Unfortunately, failure to help from the Hurricanes coaches alumni club on Saturday night minimized the gain from Saturday’s win. Columbus beat Peter Laviolette and Nashville. And Montreal beat Paul Maurice and Winnipeg. That puts the Hurricanes one step closer to the finish line but only with the same one point lead over both Columbus and Montreal for the final two playoff slots.
As such, Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh is just as big as Saturday’s home game against Philadelphia and the margin for error continues to be virtually non-existent.
The opponent on Sunday is a Pittsburgh Penguins team that had played its way slightly above the fray but came back to the pack a bit with a loss in Nashville on Friday. With that loss, the Penguins are now up only two points on the Hurricanes and would fall behind on the tiebreaker if the Hurricanes win on Sunday. So by the end of Sunday night, the Hurricanes could be as high as sixth (third in the Metro) or as low as eighth.
Prior to the loss to Nashville, the Penguins had won three straight and picked up points in five straight. But the Hurricanes have won two 2019 meetings first with a 4-0 win on February 5 and more recently with an exhilarating 3-2 shutout win on March 19.
My watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Pittsburgh Penguins
1) The effectiveness of the Hurricanes forecheck
The 4-0 win in early February saw the Hurricanes forecheck drive play for much of the game. Against the Penguins, I really think the tipping point is the Hurricanes forecheck. If the Hurricanes can hem the Pens in their own end, that both generates offense and decreases the amount of defense that the Hurricanes must play. If on the other hand, the Pens can advance the puck, Crosby comes more into play. Olli Maatta is back in the lineup, but at least as of Friday, the Penguins are still without Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Against the undermanned Pens blue line, the Hurricanes had been able to attack aggressively and get results for doing so. On Sunday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can get their forecheck going.
2) Goaltending versus seeking ugly goals
The most recent Canes versus Pens match up turned out to be an odd goalie duel. Matt Murray was great stats-wise facing and saving a bunch of shots. But in my opinion, Murray was as much lucky as good as he spit out a number of juicy rebounds. At the other end of the rink, Petr Mrazek was solid and in my opinion a bit more sound. Curtis McElhinney figures to start on Sunday, but the story is the same. If this game ends up being cautious and tightly-played defensively, the scoring chances will be minimal. In such a game, even a single soft goal can be the difference. So on Sunday, I will be watching to see which teams gets and advantage in goal. In addition, I will be watching to see which team can successfully get bodies and pucks to the crease at the same time with the hope of scoring an ugly goal or two.
3) Top to bottom solid play
On the road, the Penguins will have the ability to dictate match ups. That likely means the Penguins are able to find some shifts for Sidney Crosby away from the Canes best defenders. As such, the Hurricanes will need to be sound and solid from top to bottom. With van Riemsdyk and de Haan having a couple tough games, they will need to rebound, but more generally the entire lineup needs to be sound.
4) Special teams
This time of year, special teams advantages can often decide games. On Saturday, the Hurricanes power play rebounded a bit with two goals in only two tries. That less one power play goal against netted the Hurricanes a one-goal advantage which was the difference in the game (not counting empty net goals). On Sunday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes special teams play can at least holds own.
The puck drops at 5pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.