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Behind Enemy Lines: Meet The Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, St. Louis Blues, and Anaheim Ducks

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A packed week with two Atlantic Division foes and two from the Western Conference

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning

Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The hottest team in the Eastern Conference to open the season enters Raleigh coming off their most impressive performance yet, as they demolished the two-time defending champion Penguins 7-1 on Saturday. Off to a 7-1-1 start, the Lightning have the best record in the East, and have racked up a staggering 36 goals in 9 games (averaging a stellar 4 goals per game).

Speaking of hot starts, Nikita Kucherov has notched ten goals in the first nine games for the Bolts, having scored in all but one game thus far. With a total of 17 points, Kucherov only shares the points lead with captain Steven Stamkos who has benefited from Kucherov’s potency by collecting a whopping 14 assists. If the Hurricanes want to have any hope of competing with the Lightning, at least slowing this incredible scoring line down will be task number one.

In net, 23-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy, officially entrenched as the full-season starter for the first time in his career, has gotten off to a good start as well. His .933 save percentage in eight starts has given the Bolts a chance to win each time he has been tapped to man the net. Potentially the only quibble with the start of the season from the Bolts would be the high volume of shots that Vasilevskiy has had to face. By yielding an average of just over 35 shots per game in the first nine games, the Lightning have needed to continue to pound in goals at a high rate.

As a point of comparison, the Lightning currently have the second-best shooting percentage at 13.2% of shots finding the back of the net. Compare that to the Hurricanes at a paltry 7.9%, and one can only hope that regression to the mean from both sides is bound to happen.

If the Canes hope to gain two points in their brief return to home ice, they must stay out of the box again the dangerous Lightning power play, and they must find a way to cause trouble for the Kucherov-Stamkos combo that no team has slowed down to date.

What to Watch For

  • Slavin-Pesce vs. Kucherov-Stamkos. This should be a matchup that the Canes try to get each time those two forwards come on the ice. Can they continue to produce against the NHL’s best?
  • With a four-game week ahead, it will be interesting to see if the plan is to have Scott Darling play in three of the games, or if he and Cam Ward will split the workload.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at Air Canada Centre

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Ottawa Senators
Auston Matthews
Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

A difficult week continues with a matchup of the next-best Atlantic Division team, as the Canes travel to Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs. The turbo-charged young offense of the Leafs is led by last season’s Calder Trophy winner, Auston Matthews. Alongside other young budding stars such as William Nylander and Mitch Marner, the Leafs boost the highest-scoring offense in the NHL up to this point in the season, over 4.6 goals per game.

This matchup should be a terrific head-to-head battle for years to come, as both young teams are teeming with talent, yet have gone about their team-building in different ways. The Hurricanes have stacked their blueline with talent, and the Leafs have established themselves as having the best young forwards in the game. Expect to see an up-tempo game, with the tremendous skating ability on both sides on full display.

With former Cane Ron Hainsey added to the Leafs blueline, Toronto is seeking to add experience and stability on their back line that can help starter Frederik Andersen keep some pucks out of the net, as last season the Leafs made the playoffs despite finishing 22nd in goals against last season. That effort has not been borne out as of yet, as the Leafs have allowed 28 goals in eight games. While Hainsey has slotted in with the second-most ice time for defensemen in Toronto, the lack of development of a true third pairing on defense is the Leafs’most glaring issue.

In three games last season, the Hurricanes earned a 1-1-1 record, winning the only game in Toronto last season.

What to Watch For

  • Controlling possession and tempo of this game will be paramount. While this is a matchup of an offensive team against a defensive team, the pace should still be fast as each team has the ability to play at the faster speed.
  • In the early going, the Hurricanes’ fourth line has been very impressive in terms of puck possession and grinding on the forecheck. Against a team with a suspect third pair on the road, the bottom six for Carolina will have ample opportunities against relatively weaker competition. The bottom half of the Canes lineup needs to be the difference on the scoreboard for the Canes to come away with a win.

St. Louis Blues

Friday, 7:30 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Vegas Golden Knights Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Friday night at PNC Arena, the Hurricanes continue a week of competition against teams off to good starts as the St. Louis Blues arrive on the heels of a 6-2-1 start. The Blues will enter Raleigh in the first game of a back-to-back, with the Canes playing the back end of a back-to-back themselves.

The Blues head into the week with injuries from the preseason still a factor, as Patrik Berglund, Jay Bouwmeester and Robby Fabbri all out for an extended period of time (Fabbri is done for the season). While the Blues are somewhat different with the departures of players like Kevin Shattenkirk, it still seems very much the same. With Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Pietrangelo on the blueline, the core causes for their success remain the same. A disciplined, structured team, the Blues have been aided offensively with adding Brayden Schenn in exchange for Jori Lehtera, but largely return the same offensive profile.

With that structure as a foundation, starting netminder Jake Allen has been given the ample opportunity to shine and has rewarded the Blues with a .912 save percentage and 2.8 goals against average.

Expect the Blues to attempt to use their bigger, more physical team to their advantage against Carolina. While the Canes’ speed has in the past provided them with opportunities for success against the Blues, if this game becomes a physical battle, the Blues will have the upper hand.

What to Watch For

  • Speed, speed, speed. The biggest advantage the Canes have on St. Louis is speed. Tarasenko is a fast and skilled player, but across the board, look for the scoring chances that are created by the Canes to be led by their speed.
  • Who will be in net? It would seem the first home appearance for Cam Ward would potentially be in line if Scott Darling is in net the night before in Toronto. Look for Ward to try and pick up where he left off with his solid performance in Edmonton last week.

Anaheim Ducks

Sunday, 5:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: New York Islanders at Anaheim Ducks Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

To wrap up a busy week, the Hurricanes will host the Anaheim Ducks for the only meeting in Raleigh this season with a 5 o’clock matinee on Sunday. The Ducks come into the week with a long list of injuries on their veteran squad, witg multiple notable stalwarts missing time in the early going. Cam Fowler is out with a lower-body injury, joining captain Ryan Getzlaf, who has yet to return from an injury suffered on October 13th. Last season’s trade deadline pick-up Patrick Eaves, who re-signed in the offseason, also is out of action, as well as Ryan Kesler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen and back-up goalie Ryan Miller, all of whom are either out or uncertain for action this week. If you are scoring at home, that is three of the top 4 defensemen, the top two centers, and another middle-six forward all out of the lineup.

With such destructive injuries, the 3-3-1 start for the Ducks has to be a positive, considering that they need to tread water until the injured top performers can heal. With such a depleted roster, scoring has been hard to come by for the Ducks, as they only have 18 goals through the first seven games. Coach Randy Carlyle already is a fan of a tighter, more physical game, and his dramatic loss of skilled talent is leading his team deeper into the grinding style of play that they must now produce to be competitive.

In net, starter John Gibson has been very good in the early going, as he has compiled a .932 save percentage while facing 236 shots in 6 starts (7 appearances). His sparkling numbers have only produced a 3-2-1 record, but that type of high-end goaltending is something the Ducks are going to rely upon, at least in the short-term. With so much offensive firepower missing, the burden to score has not fallen so much on one specific player for the Ducks, but rather the collection of players. Corey Perry is certainly the biggest name remaining in the lineup, but his four points in the first seven games have not been the spark the Ducks have been seeking. Speedster Andrew Cogliano has provided the greatest punch with two goals and four assists, leading the team with six points. The Ducks are not going to wow you with offensive skill, and their power play may be the best example of that, sitting at a paltry 4% and converting on only 1 of 25 opportunities on the man advantage.

Aggressive, tough, and speedy hockey is the order of the day on Sunday for the Canes. If they bring the energy and focus, the Ducks are simply sitting on the pond to be taken. If they allow their game to be bogged down, it will be a tough battle. At the end of a difficult week, the hope will be that the Canes can summon the energy and enthusiasm to press the Ducks, who will be playing on a back-to-back.

What to Watch For

  • I know I continue to beat this drum, but SPEED. The Hurricanes have an advantage against most teams in terms of skating. They are smaller as a whole unit, and so tougher, slower paces against opponents like the Blues and Ducks do not play into their favor. Look to see who gets to dictate pace. If the Canes use their speed, they will have a number of high quality chances to convert on the offensive end, particularly on Sunday.
  • 5:00 p.m. starts are weird, so make note of that if you plan to watch. Also, with these awkward start times, often times one team can get off to a more sluggish start. The Canes effort and energy will play a huge part in success against the undermanned Ducks.

Lastly, if you made it this far before the game on Tuesday, congratulations on being uber prepared for the packed week of Canes hockey!