Here we are — April 4 — game #81. And the Hurricanes still control their playoff destiny.
With a Canes win in regulation or overtime and a Montreal loss to Washington in overtime or regulation, the Hurricanes will clinch a playoff berth and end the long drought. More broadly, the Hurricanes have a magic number of three points versus Montreal and four points versus Columbus and need to beat out only one of them to return to the playoffs.
But the margin for error is incredibly tiny. With a loss on Thursday night at PNC Arena, the Hurricanes could wake up requiring a loss from Montreal or Columbus in the final weekend of the season to have a chance. Best is to just keep winning, hope help clinches early but be fully prepared to just win out if necessary to climb into the playoffs.
The feeling I had thinking about the Hurricanes game over breakfast is something I have not had in a long time. Though the potential for utter heartbreak is definitely there, this alive feeling is the joy of being a fan.
As for the match up, it is a deceptively tough one. If I had the ability to sort through all of the non-playoff teams to pick a match up for tonight, New Jersey would be nowhere near the top of the list. Sure the Devils are an also ran playing out the string in last place in the Metropolitan Division with a 5-5 record in their last five games. Sure the Devils are have lost 11 straight (two in overtime) against teams in playoff position dating all the way back to February 10. But that game on February 10 was a disheartening 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. The Devils also smothered the Hurricanes for a 2-o win on December 29 and lost only by a 2-1 margin in November. In short, the Hurricanes have struggled against the Devils. If given the opportunity to sort through the 2018-19 NHL also rans, the Devils would be nowhere near the top of the list of teams that I would cherry pick for tonight’s match up. The issue with the Devils is that they play the same neutral zone clogging game as the Islanders who also gave the Canes fits and the Capitals who recently beat the Hurricanes twice. At times, the Hurricanes struggle to get the forecheck going against teams that make it difficult to navigate the first and second passes, and that is exactly the type of team that New Jersey is.
So looking past the Devils based on their record is foolish. But at the same time, the Hurricanes are a good hockey team right now and have been an ultimate master of ‘just find a way’ of late. And no doubt, the team is better off playing a team out of the hunt like New Jersey than some of the other tough match ups lately against the league’s best.
Whereas the Devils have been unable to play above their heads losing 11 straight against current playoff teams, the Hurricanes have been incredibly consistent at taking care of business against non-playoff teams winning seven straight. That bodes well for a match up that is exactly that combination.
With the possibility of clinching a playoff berth on the line, my watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the New Jersey Devils
1) The right way without cautious adjustment
In Tuesday’s win over the Maple Leafs, the thing that impressed me most about the Hurricanes play was the team’s aggressiveness, intensity level and compete. In no way were the Hurricanes cautious or hesitant in terms of pace and attack. To a man, the Canes competed at the highest level possible. That is not a guarantee for success, but for a team whose calling card is winning on the forecheck, that puck-hounding style is the team’s identity and an ingredient in its peak level of play. On Thursday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can again leave caution to the wind and just skate and attack.
2) But cleaner
The biggest down side in Tuesday’s win over the Leafs was a return of the sloppiness and lack of attention to detail that has plagued the Canes intermittently of late. Especially once the Leafs cracked the scoreboard and surged, the Hurricanes had repeated issues with puck management, decision-making at the blue lines and defensive zone coverage. Only the Petr Mrazek show held the fort late in the second and into the third period as the Maple Leafs capitalized on Canes break downs. On Thursday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can play a cleaner game like the most complete win of late over the Minnesota Wild on March 23.
3) The middle of the ice
As touched on above, the biggest challenge for the Canes against the Devils in terms of style and tactics is navigating the neutral zone. The Hurricanes have struggled mightily to advance the puck in recent losses to the Capitals and also the Penguins. Disjointed play exiting the defensive zone and navigating the neutral eliminates the timing needed for the Canes forecheck to get on the puck quickly and start to generate offense and possession. More than any other factor, how easily this game goes for the Hurricanes hinges on how well they can advance the puck from their own end to the center line. If the Hurricanes can advance the puck and play fast in straight lines, they have the potential to overwhelm the Devils and win going away. If instead, the Devils are able to clog up the neutral zone and slow the Hurricanes before they get started, this game quickly looks like a 2-1 slog through the mud where a single lucky break could decide the outcome. I will be watching closely to see if the Hurricanes can advance the puck from their own end and establish their forecheck hopefully on the path to a dominant performance and easy win.
4) Leaders rising up
With the pressure at a maximum level, putting the puck in the net suddenly seems harder. Staring at half of an open net to shoot at on Tuesday, Lucas Wallmark somehow fired off the top of the cross bar. On the other hand, veteran leader Justin Williams just continues to find ways, even if improbable, to put the puck in the net when the team really needs it. His odd angle, soft goal at the end of the first period gave the Hurricanes a lead and a positive vibe heading into the locker room at the end of the first period on Tuesday. Dougie Hamilton deftly buried a power play chance in the second period to extend the lead. Jordan Staal scored a huge goal midway through the third period to offer breathing room when the Hurricanes seemed to be just holding on for dear life. On Thursday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can again find timely plays from its best players to make marks on the scoreboard that ultimately decides the outcome.
The puck drops at 7:07pm at PNC Arena in what is the biggest hockey game in Raleigh in at least five or six years.