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Behind Enemy Lines: Dallas Stars, New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres

The Canes begin a four-game week at PNC on Monday

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at New York Islanders Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Stars

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

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Dallas Stars Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

A busy week for the Carolina Hurricanes starts with a return engagement with the Dallas Stars. Back on October 21st, the Canes fell to the Stars out in Dallas by a 4-3 score. Since that game, the Stars have continued to keep their head above water in the crowded Central Division with a 9-7-0 record. A recent injury to one of their key off-season acquisitions, defenseman Marc Methot, does potentially open back up the wounds of a poor back line of defense, which was the catalyst for acquiring Methot in the first place, and the Stars’ mix of young and veteran defenders will need to withstand his absence.

The Stars were thought to be a team that would score goals and seek out simply average defensive and goaltending performances as their pathway to success. Through the first 16 games however, the formula has certainly changed under defensive-minded head coach Ken Hitchcock. The Stars currently have given up the third fewest goals in the NHL with only 43 allowed, while their offense has had to settle for a pedestrian 20th in the league in scoring.

Their offensive production, particularly on the power play, has been led by the spectacular offensive defenseman John Klingberg. His 18 points are good for tops on the team, trailed closely by the two performers you would expect near the top, captain Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, each of whom have provided 16 points. New starting netminder Ben Bishop has gotten off to a solid if unspectacular start in Big D, as his 2.48 goals against average and .915 save percentage have been good enough to provide a 7-4-0 record to this point.

While the coaching and philosophy of Hitchcock is apparent to begin this season for the Stars, it is important to note that the Stars have spent the better part of the past three to four seasons playing an up tempo game and scoring lots of goals, while certainly yielding their fair share. By losing Methot to a lower body injury, even if only for a few games here, the Stars lose one of their most vital defensive cogs and must now implement their new style with a blueline that more closely resembles the leakier version of previous seasons. That may present an opportunity for the Hurricanes to get their offense activated at home.

What to Watch For

  • Canes head coach Bill Peters has made it clear that changes are being made to the 30th ranked power play for Carolina. At just 12.24% coming into the game, and facing the league’s best power play on the other end, finding a way to just play even on special teams would be a big win for the Canes.
  • With Lee Stempniak and Phil Di Giuseppe added to the Canes roster, the shuffling of lines may continue. While Stempniak may likely be a scratch, Di Giuseppe will be slotting into the lineup, likely on Monday.

New York Islanders

Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at Barclays Center; Sunday, 5:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: New York Islanders at St. Louis Blues Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

The Canes and Isles meet up twice this week to kick off their series for the season. That means an old friend, head coach Doug Weight returns to Raleigh, but also means the headache of matching up with Canes nemesis John Tavares twice in the same week. Tavares is captaining a roster that has piled on the goals in their first 17 games, as they have netted 60 goals, good for fourth in the NHL to date. The Islanders have a break early in the week, before playing three games in four days starting on Thursday at home against the Canes.

As expected, Tavares leads the Islanders both in goals (13) and in points (19) on the season. His running mates on offense so far have included a wide range of players, as Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, rookie Mathew Barzal, new Islander Jordan Eberle, and a host of others have contributed to what has been a terrific offense to this point.

Unfortunately, while the Islanders’ 9-6-2 record is certainly not poor, their goaltending has kept them from greater riches thus far, as Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss have shared the net to the tune of a .901 save percentage and 3.15 goals against average collectively. Keeping the puck out of their net without sacrificing the current offensive punch is the riddle that the Isles must solve to elevate this team squarely into playoff contention. With four points on the line versus a divisional foe, these two matchups will go a long way in determining the pecking order in the middle of the Metropolitan Division for both the Canes and the Isles.

What to Watch For

  • Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have spent much of the previous matchups with the Islanders following around John Tavares. Expect that to continue.
  • While Scott Darling may be the starting goalie in Carolina, Cam Ward has played better to this point. That doesn’t mean Ward should be re-inserted as the starter by any means, but it will be interesting to see how many starts Ward receives this week.

Buffalo Sabres

Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at KeyBank Center

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

New coach Phil Housley has not gotten off to the best start as a head coach in the NHL, as his Buffalo Sabres are currently 5-9-3 on the season. With their offense ranking just 30th in goals scored and their defense ranking 26th in goals allowed, the stats are as bleak as the record suggests. The early struggles for the Sabres are across the board, but injuries (especially on the blueline) have certainly been a factor. Zach Bogosian has missed all of the season, and a recent injury to Rasmus Ristolainen has left the Buffalo defense without their most experienced defenders.

On offense, Evander Kane, Jack Eichel, and Ryan O’Reilly have attempted to carry the load, with Kane leading the team in goals (9) and points (16). The lack of offensive punch has placed the pressure squarely on the out-manned defense and starting netminder Robin Lehner. Lehner and Chad Johnson, who has started six games himself, have posted a poor .888 save percentage combined, good for only 29th in the league. The Sabres are in serious danger of falling out of the race before Christmas and missing the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year.

The opportunity is there for the the Hurricanes to take advantage of a busy week, but it is important to they put together a string of hockey similar to what they displayed last week in going 2-0-1 in the previous week.

What to Watch For

  • The Sabres will be on the back end of a back-to-back after they take on the Red Wings in Detroit on Friday. The Canes must use their speed and skate around the Sabres to give themselves the advantage by the time the third period comes around.