After nine hockey-less days for Canes fans, the team returns from its break to host the Vegas Golden Knights at PNC Arena on Friday night.
The game represents the front end of a 32-game stretch run that sees the team in a dog fight for one of the last couple playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. I detailed the overall situation in today’s Daily Cup of Joe, but the shorter version is that each game and point will be critical because of the parity in the middle of the Eastern Conference.
The Hurricanes face a Golden Knights team that similarly is in a dog fight and desperately needs every point. Like the Hurricanes, the Golden Knights currently sit in the final playoff spot in their respective conference. And also somewhat like the Hurricanes, Vegas seemed to need the break. The Hurricanes had some flat efforts but actually managed to finish strong with a 2-0-1 mark at home in the last three games. Vegas limped to a 1-5-1 mark heading into the break.
The NHL did a smart thing pairing teams both coming off bye weeks for their first few games to even things up, but these first games back can still have a randomness to them in terms of which team is most ready to and looks rested instead of rusty.
Against this backdrop, Canes hockey returns to PNC Arena tonight. My watch points follow:
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Vegas Golden Knights
1) Rested or rusty?
The hope is that nine days off works perfectly for players to refresh physically and also take a break from the grind mentally. But the possible downside is that teams are out of rhythm and routine and take a few games to get back up to NHL speed. On Friday, I will be watching see which of the two shows most with the Hurricanes after nine days off.
A key contributor for the Canes successful stretch run in 2018-19 that notably started from a significant position was the surge of Petr Mrazek’s play in net. He was solid, consistent and also capable of stealing a few wins that the team maybe did not deserve. Thus far in 2019-20, the Canes goaltending in total has been okay but also up and down at times. Launching into the beginning of the playoff stretch run, I will be watching see if Petr Mrazek (or possibly James Reimer too) can find the higher gear that Mrazek found last season.
3) Sebastian Aho
His season is interesting thus far. Sebatian Aho is on target for an impressive 39 goals. His 69-point pace is a bit off the point per game he registered in 2018-19 but not horribly so. But I still think Aho has more to give. In my opinion, he has yet to find a stretch where he was consistently dominant for an extended run of games like he did in 2018-19. If he does that, the Canes become a team with an elite top scoring line that is a problem for the opposition every night but in 2019-20 with a team that potentially has more scoring depth. As such, Sebastian Aho is a player that I will be watching closely with the season resuming.
The puck drops at 7:30pm at PNC Arena.
Rust > Rest has been the rule for these bye weeks, which is why they set it up like this this season. Both teams will be sloppy – which may make for some exciting hockey.