After an emotionally thrilling win over the top-ranked Philadelphia Flyers on Rod Brind`Amour night at the RBC Center Friday, the Carolina Hurricanes go right back to work tonight hosting the hottest team in the National Hockey League, Jacques Lemaire's New Jersey Devils.
If the Canes are feeling more confident having built a bit more of a cushion as they hold on to the 8th and final slot of the playoff standings [sportsclubstats], the Devils may be riding even higher after a remarkable 1-0 shutout over their Hudson River rival, the New York Rangers at a sold out Prudential Center last night. Goaltender Johan Hedberg continues to excel while Martin Brodeur is rehabilitating a sprained knee. After spending the last two weeks in the pressbox, Brodeur dressed as back-up Friday. Better yet for the New Jersey team, the centerpiece of their offense Ilya Kovalchuk had the lone goal beating Henrik Lundqvist on a spectacular breakaway move. The goal extended Kovy's point streak to 9 games, with 7 goals and 4 assists over that span. In the last 17 games, the Devils are 14-1-2, which includes two wins over the Hurricanes in the last couple weeks.
With neither team practicing this morning, both coaches are keeping their starters in goal close for now. The possibility that both last night's winners, Cam Ward and Hedberg, will yield to Justin Peters and Brodeur is a decision we can only debate the merits of for now. Expect an announcement after 5pm.
This game is the second of the Canes four-game homestand, and is also the second half of their thirteenth back-to-back of the season. Overall in back-to-backs, the Canes have a record of 13-7-5, and are 6-5-1 in the second half of the previous twelve sets.
The Devils may be on a roll that has the entire hockey world buzzing, but the Canes have been remarkably solid when they are playing in front of their fans since the start of 2011. Going back to the win over the Devils on New Year's Day, Carolina has built a home record of 8-2-1 in their last 11 games on home ice. With this in mind, there is reason for optimism when we see that 15 of the 23 games remaining will be here at the RBC Center. After losing two close ones so recently to this same Devils team, tonight's final matchup of the season between the two teams can be regarded as an important test to see if the Caniac mojo and home-cooking can be the difference between the W and the L.
Please check out our ready-to-print .pdf at Canes Country's Game Guide: Hurricanes vs Devils Feb 19 for updated stats and individual notes on tonight's roster.
As for the line-ups, Jussi Jokinen looks be the solution for Eric Staal's left wing for now, and as Bob wrote last night, the Brandon Sutter - Jiri Tlusty chemistry is hard to ignore. Until Ryan Carter returns, Patrick Dwyer has assumed the role of fourth line center. His power move to save a sure Flyers goal early in last night's game when Ward got trapped behind the net was highlighted in the game re-caps, and re-affirms that Dwyer's contributions are often more about what he does in his own end than about chipping in goals, at least for now.
The Defensive pairings have shifted a bit since Brett Carson was brought up while Jim Rutherford worked through the details of Ian White's trade to the San Jose Sharks. The Joe Corvo - Tim Gleason pairing has been split up, with Corvo now playing with Ironhorse Joni Pitkanen. Gleason's solid veteran toughness is now matched with the offensive skill and creativity of rookie Jamie McBain. The two biggest blueliners, Carson and Jay Harrison make up the third pairing. Will Harrison's growing acumen and authority with the puck rub off on Carson who has all the skills and size but hasn't quite found the "swagger" (as Tripp Tracy would say) to cement him in the Hurricanes roster for the rest of this season?
No word on the status (or arrival) of Derek Joslin who was acquired yesterday afternoon from San Jose. He has not played in the Sharks line up since February 1st and will likely need a few practices to get up to game speed and earn Paul Maurice's trust, particualrly when every game seems to be so critical in the playoff race. Yesterday Jim Rutherford noted that Joslin and Brett Carson will be competing for playing time, and it is possible that both will stay with Carolina for a while, giving Maurice seven defensemen to choose from for the first time since the west coast trip in October. In addition, Rutherford has not indicated that he is done working through possible roster acquisitions. He still has eight more days before the trade deadline on February 28th.
As always, blog-master John Fischer up at In Lou We Trust has an excellent preview of tonight's game analyzing what the Devils will bring, which you should check out. I agree with him entirely when he sums up the game this way:
Basically, to use a cliche, this game really can come down to "who has enough and wants it more."
As someone who watches the team closely, Fischer believes Hedberg will once again get the start, in part because last night's 16-save shutout over the Rangers was not particularly demanding.
He also expects Lemaire to go with the identical roster as he went with last night, though perhaps adjusting the lines a bit. If so, Mark Fraser, who fought with Troy Bodie on Wednesday, will be a healthy scratch. Anton Volchenkov, the Russian defenseman who was suspended three games for throwing an elbow to the head of Zach Boychuk, returned for the Devils Friday, and will likely face the Hurricanes for the first time since that incident.
Two other MSM blogs, The Record's Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice and Rich Chere at the Newark Star Ledger, will be the best sources to check for goalie and other roster announcements coming out of the New Jersey club prior to the game.
The game starts at 7pm, and will be broadcast by Fox Sports Carolinas and 99.9 the Fan as usual. Look for the Canes Country gamethread to open its doors around 6:30.
The game is close to selling out and with the outstanding tailgating weather again today, it's safe to say the electric playoff atmosphere that contributed to last night's win will carry through to tonight.