On Tuesday night in Tampa, Florida, the Hurricanes three-game road trip will wrap up with a challenging match up against the Tampa Bay Lightning who like Sunday’s opponent often come up in Stanley Cup conversations.
But the Hurricanes are gradually building credibility that suggests their hot start is for real. The win in Minnesota to kick off the trip required late game heroics and an overtime game-winner, but if one digs deeper into the details, the Hurricanes were utterly dominant in that game if you just remove the special teams struggles. Then playing a back-to-back in Winnipeg on Sunday, the Hurricanes again mustered an impressive even if unsuccessful performance. The Canes ultimately fell by a goal (not counting the empty-netter) but again were the aggressor and the better team.
Coming into the game after an 8-2 drubbing of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Lightning represent a third consecutive test against a good hockey team.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Tampa Bay Lightning
1) Yet another run of Brind’Amour’s aggressive style against a good team
One of my concerns heading into the road trip was how well the Hurricanes aggressive, ‘hound the puck everywhere/recover if needed’ style would work against strong offensive teams that can move the puck. So far, Brind’Amour’s approach has passed with flying colors. In Saturday’s win against the Wild, the Hurricanes swarmed, smothered and dominated. Minnesota did adjust somewhat as the game wore on but never really solved it. The Winnipeg game was not nearly as lopsided, but the Hurricanes did force their frenetic and sometimes chaotic style of play into the game and benefited from doing so. The Hurricanes pressing system seems prone to teams making first and second passes quickly and finding the underbelly behind the often three man deep forecheck, but so far opponents have been unable to accomplish that. On Tuesday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes style again presents well against a good hockey team.
2) Special teams and staying out of the box to avoid special teams
Special teams continue to be probably the biggest struggle for the Hurricanes. The team nearly lost despite a dominant effort against the Wild solely due to special teams. Sunday’s loss featured much less special teams play, but the Hurricanes were minus one goal on special teams which was the difference in the game (not counting the empty-netter). No doubt, both special teams units will be a point of emphasis in practice when the team returns home, but ideal would be to do some combination of staying out of the penalty box and making a few plays on Tuesday. Coming into the game, the Hurricanes rank 25th and 28th in the NHL respectively for power play and penalty kill proficiency. The Lightning enter the game ranked 9th and 1st. So obviously, the preference would be to play the game at even strength where the Hurricanes have been at their best this season.
Petry Mrazek posted a very strong outing on Sunday despite the loss. The Winnipeg jets mounted an intermittent attack that saw Mrazek face a good number of high-quality chances, and Mrazek responded with what I consider to be his first strong game of the season. I would expect Brind’Amour to go right back to Mrazek on Tuesday. Despite early season success, the Hurricanes are still searching for the goalie who be at least a capable #1 for the long haul. On Tuesday, I will be watching to see if Mrazek (if he starts) can take a second step in that direction.
4) Depth scoring
Thus far early into the season, the Hurricanes have shown a propensity to score in bunches. But the majority of the scoring is coming from the top two lines. Especially on nights when the goals do not flow as easily, the team needs to find more sources of scoring. From a blue line with a ton of offensive potential, only Brett Pesce has scored (twice) so far. In addition, with Martin Necas still trying to transfer his skill set to the NHL level, his line has mostly been a nothing scoring-wise. Combined, Martin Necas, Brock McGinn, Valentin Zykov and Phil Di Giuseppe thus far playing under even the low bar set by the 2017-18 fourth line. Lucas Wallmark’s line has chipped in and has been playing well, but I think there could also be more to give there with the offensive ability on that line. Especially against a deep Lightning lineup, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can muster more offense from the bottom half of the roster and the blue line.
The puck drops at 7:30pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Mike and Tripp and his trucks.