Hurricanes Record: 24-20-9 (57 pts.)
Blues Record: 36-11-5 (77 pts.)
After five games in seven days, it felt a little odd to go two straight nights with no Canes hockey. While the team was getting a little rest, a couple of teams climbed back up in the Metro division standings, leaving the Canes on the outside looking in although by a wafer-thin margin. They begin today one point out of a playoff spot with a game in hand. That game gets played tonight against the St. Louis Blues.
The Blues are one of the beasts of the Western Conference. They are second in the Central division and third in the conference, with games in hand over the leaders. They are 6-3-0 over their last 10 games and have won three straight. They rank among the top three in the league in most statistical categories including wins, points earned per game, goals per game, five-on-five play, special teams, and possession. They are 17-3-1 season to date against Eastern Conference opponents.
The Canes and Blues met in St. Louis on November 16th, and although the Canes were outmatched for most of the game they were able to keep the score close by tallying two shorthanded goals, before an empty netter sealed the fate in the waning minute for a 4-2 loss. There were a lot of Alex moments in that game, as Alexander Steen tallied an assist and the game-winning goal, while defenseman Alex Pietrangelo laid a heavy hit on Alexander Semin that kept him out of the next twelve games with a concussion.
The Blues last played on Tuesday night, and they face the Canes on the front end of a back-to-back scenario (returning home to face Nashville tomorrow night). As a result there may be some line shuffling tonight to spread out ice time among players across the two games. Head coach Ken Hitchcock recently mixed the forward lines, moving versatile forward T.J. Oshie to a line with Patrik Berglund and Magnus Paajarvi, while Jaden Schwartz skated with Oshie's regular linemates David Backes and Alexander Steen.
Jaroslav Halak will get the start in net tonight, his fourth in a row. He is 4-0-0 in those games with a 1.23 GAA and .957 save percentage (side note: if you've never seen Halak before, this is what he looks like).
Lest there be any question of depth in the Blues lineup, they have nine players who have reached the 30-point mark, and ten representatives in the Sochi Olympics.
For more insight from the Blues perspective, check out Ken Hitchcock's video interview from yesterday's practice, along with a terrific article from Louie Korac's In the Slot Blues blog, which includes comments from Hitchcock, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Barret Jackman on how they view tonight's matchup.
The Canes come into tonight's game off a 3-0 shutout loss to the Canadiens Tuesday night, but with a solid 9-4-0 record for the month of January. They have three games next week, all at home, to wrap up the schedule before the Olympic break.
There was no practice on Wednesday as the team traveled back from Montreal, but there was a full roster at practice yesterday, including three goaltenders. Cam Ward was in net for his first full practice since going on injured reserve at the beginning of January, and afterwards was cleared from IR and sent to Charlotte on a conditioning assignment. He's expected to get the start tonight in Cleveland and will repeat tomorrow night if he's able coming out of tonight's game.
As for the start tonight in Raleigh, that will be Anton Khudobin. This will be the first time Dobby has faced the Blues in his NHL career.
The only tweak to the lines at yesterday's practice was to accommodate the return of Patrick Dwyer, who slotted as expected back on Manny Malhotra's line with Nathan Gerbe after missing four games with a lower body injury.
Lines should be as follows barring any changes coming out of today's morning skate:
In other Canes-related news:
Kirk Muller explains the goaltending situation and Cam Ward's visit to Charlotte in his post-practice audio.
Jim Rutherford was on Sports Net 590 yesterday and provided his insight on the current state of the Canes in this radio interview.
Kyle Hanlin and Michael Smith published Episode 11 of The Hurricanes Report podcast.
Adam Proteau of The Hockey News offers an interesting read on accountability at the General Manager level in the Metro Division.
Tune in to Storm Surge at 10:30 am live from PNC Arena. The Phantom Cam will be in the building again tonight so watch for it live or make sure you DVR for all the super-slo-mo goodness. We'll have the game thread ready to roll by 6:30 pm. See you at the rink.