It seems like the difference between 8th and 9th place in the division in February shouldn't be any more important than that between 9th and 10th. Or 5th and 6th. However, the imposition of a bold red dividing line below the 8th place team separating those winners on the inside and those looking at a chance in the playoffs from the outside is always powerful, even with 30 games remaining in the season.
Tonight the eighth-place Atlanta Thrashers are in town for the third game between these Southeast Division rivals this season. The Carolina Hurricanes, sitting at ninth place, has come out on top in the previous two, winning in a shootout and then in overtime here in Raleigh, January 9th.
The Hurricanes have been in ninth place for what seems like forever, creeping closer to that red line. In their last three game, the Canes and the team they are striving to overcome have matching 1-2-0 records, and the one point that separates these two has not changed one iota. Tonight that will change.
After the jump a look at what both teams bring to the arena tonight.
January was a very good month for the home team, but they have yet to win in February, losing most recently in Toronto where they were shut out by an energized Maple Leaf squad. That loss stung, an observation confirmed when the team announced at the last minute to cancel practice Friday. Coach Paul Maurice was quoted in the Canes Now post yesterday with this explanation of the change, which was regarded as very unusual.
"I checked with everybody when they came in to see who was fighting things and wanted to make sure we had lots of jump for tomorrow."
Only Jeff Skinner ended up spending any time on the ice, asking for the net to be brought back on the ice so he could practice alone. From the N&O's preview this morning:
Not everyone stayed off the ice. Jeff Skinner went out alone, taking shot after shot, the whack of stick on puck reverberating around the empty arena.
Skinner rapidly put shot after shot on net - just the thing Maurice said was lacking the last two games.
At today's pre-game skate, where season ticket holders were invited to watch, tweets tells us that recent recall Zach Boychuk, was matched up with fourth liners Ryan Carter and Troy Bodie, and Sergei Samsonov is on Eric Staal's top line. We also hear that we can expect that to vary as the game progresses tonight. Other than the productive second grouping of Tuomo Ruutu, Jeff Skinner, and Chad LaRose, every other line will be adjusted as circumstances warrant through out the game. Jussi Jokinen remains out with a "lower body concern".
Knowing those circumstances, look for these lines at the start:
Staal, Samsonov, Erik Cole
Ruutu, Skinner, LaRose
Brandon Sutter, Jiri Tlusty, Patrick Dwyer
Boychuk, Carter, Bodie
Paul Branecky spoke with Maurice, Boychuk and Samsonov on the left wings' roles as the lines are changed up mid-game and posted this just now. Boychuk, Samsonov Make Adjustments - Paul Branecky, Tracking the Storm- Blog Moving from scoring role to energy role or vice versa seems like a big enough adjustment on its own, but it was the physical aspect that players seemed to have the most trouble with.
Eric Staal likely considers Atlanta one of his favorite opponents having notched career numbers 49 points (19G + 30 A) in 44 games vs the team, including the hat trick in the first game he wore the "C" a year ago.
For the defense, there are several story lines still evolving.
- Ol' man Joe Corvo is showing true veteran leadership as he has been finding the back of the net with his cannon from the blue line, and skating with energy and tenacity every shift. His partner Tim Gleason welcomed a new daughter Wednesday, then flew up to join the team in Toronto where he dropped gloves to "answer" for his one-punch KO of Leaf Nikolai Kulemin the week previously.
- Jamie McBain is playing as well in all three zones as we've seen since last spring, while his partner Joni Pitkanen's play is fueling less-than-kind discussion on "what's wrong with Pits?"
- Finally, Ian White and Jay Harrison get the least ice time, but are playing their roles consistently when reliability is what the team desperately needs on the back end.
I've got these D-pairings spelled out as follows:
Corvo - Gleason
McBain - Pitkanen
White - Harrison
Cam Ward has now started eleven consecutive games for the Hurricanes. No reason to expect any differently tonight as he has had some decent success vs the Thrash in his career, with a record of 16-8-2, with a 3.05 GAA and one shutout in 27 career appearances. He has won three straight games vs Atlanta.
Finally, from CanesNow right after the skate Canes seek better energy, emotion Chip Alexander spoke with Maurice about whether yesterday's day off had it's desired effect:
"Emotion is a huge part of our game. Energy is a huge part of our game. Sometimes you need to crowd to kind of feed that, but you always need to do something to get that crowd going. That's when we've always played our best hockey, when we've had that jump, that emotion and energy, and that's what we need to bring tonight."
For a review of current individual statistics and other game notes, be sure to check out the Canes Country's Game Guide: Hurricanes vs Thrashers Feb 5 , a downloadable .pdf we have available for you to print out as a reference at the game.
After tonight's game, the Hurricanes take the road for a five-game, twelve-day road trip with includes games vs the resurgent New Jersey Devils (twice), the Conference power house Philadelphia Flyers and next weekend's back-to-back vs the Tampa Bay Lightning and these same Thrashers on Sunday.
The Canes will next return to the RBC on Feburary 18th when they honor Rod Brind`Amour by retiring #17, and host the Flyers for the final match up between those two clubs this season.
This is a difficult time to be with the Thrashers whose performance and confidence has taken huge hits since they came out of the gate so strong last fall. Take a look at this plummet in their chances to make the playoffs from SportsClubStats.com. It has got to come as a shock that, as of this morning, Atlanta is actually ranked dead last in the Southeast, behind the Florida Panthers, according that site's calculations of playoff odds.
How does this happen? Atlanta has lost 9 of their last 11 games. In his well worth reading report on the team's perilous state in the standings yesterday, Yahoo! Sports Nicholas Cotsonikas quoted the club's GM, Rick Dudley, to say
"I'm too old to panic," Dudley said.
The team has had a run of injuries in recent weeks, including the loss of Tobias Enstrom, the All-Star stay-at home defenseman usually paired with offensively gifted Dustin Byfuglien. Buff has been in a prolonged slump lately, now having gone 12 games without a point. Both Captain Andrew Ladd, who did not particpate in this morning's skate, and teen sensation Evander Kane missed several games, but are expected to play tonight. Kane especially has been a scoring threat in his games vs Carolina and has 4 points in 4 games.
No word on whether the Thrashers will play Ondrej Pavelec or Chris Mason, who was recently activated from the injured reserve. For more on the visiting team you can check in with the SBN blog Bird Watchers Anonymous or the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Thrashers blog.
The AJC reports the following forward lines, same as were used in the 4-2 loss to the recently surging Calgary Flames in Atlanta Thursday night.
From the Thursday night game, here's one of the oddest moments we've seen this season. While it's probably too easy to suggest this scene where defenseman Freddy Meyer mysteriously passed out along the blue line while play continued, is a parallel for the fall from the top that the Atlanta team is experiencing, I'll leave that to you to decide. Freddy Meyer on collapse: 'Next thing I know I woke up on the ice' - Puck Daddy:
The Hurricanes absolutely can not go into this game assuming the two points for the win are easy pickings, despite the Atlanta's recent struggles. The Thrashers have even more at stake than the Canes and will play like it. With the imaginary red line between 8th and 9th place separating the contenders from the outsiders, expect the home team and a rowdy crowd to bring everything they have to the arena tonight, to earn the win and make the leap above the line, before embarking on a challenging roadtrip.
As usual the puck drops at 7pm, and we'll have our open game thread launched at 6:30. Tonight, we are delighted to welcome Brian LeBlanc, known in the Canes media for his work at the PuckDrops blog and on twitter as @Puckdrops, who will be actively contributing in the thread with additional observations and commentary from the pressbox.
The game will also be broadcast on FSCarolinas and 99.9 ESPN radio.