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Behind Enemy Lines: The Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Chicago Blackhawks

The Canes look to snap a four-game winless streak, and here’s who they’ll try to do it against.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Florida Panthers Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Panthers

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

New York Rangers v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

To begin the week at PNC Arena, the Carolina Hurricanes get a rare opportunity to face a team below them in the standings at this point in the season. The Florida Panthers arrive in Raleigh on a four-game losing streak of their own, and have done so by allowing at least five goals in each of their last three games. The Panthers’ lack of goal prevention has also led a team with Roberto Luongo and James Reimer to reach onto the waiver wire to sign Antti Niemi to man the net if needed. Nothing has helped thus far, as the three-headed monster in net has only produced a .893 save percentage and a whopping 4.02 goal against average.

While it is safe to say goaltending alone is not the issue, just a simple observation of the blueline in South Florida can surmise where the breakdown has come from. The top two defensemen for the Panthers, Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle, have posted an impressive plus-7 and plus-8 respectively. But go further down into the second and third pairings and you will see the likes of Mark Pysyk, Michael Matheson and Ian McCoshen with heavy minus numbers overall. While +/- may not tell a complete story, in situations such as this it appears to lead you in the direction of the troubles the Panthers are having currently.

Offensively for the Panthers, the season has gotten off to a nice start. Currently 12th in the league in goals scored, the offense has certainly done their job. The triumvirate of Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau leads the team in points at 15 apiece. The return of winger Evgenii Dadonov from Russia for the first time since 2012 has been largely successful, as he has chipped in 14 points as well.

All told, the offense is not the issue currently in South Florida. If this team can be a bit tighter in their own end and get some crucial saves, they should still be a factor in the playoff discussion in the Atlantic Division.

What to Watch For

  • Everyone knows that the Canes are struggling to score themselves. They have an opportunity, at home, to face a team struggling on the back end. As mentioned previously, the bottom pairings are struggling for the Panthers. Who Bill Peters tries to get out there early and often against the bottom pairings may be a good barometer for who he believes is most capable to jumpstart the slumping Carolina attack.
  • What is the goaltending situation in Carolina? Scott Darling will be back in net after providing a performance good enough to win in Arizona. Can he build on that outing?

Columbus Blue Jackets

Friday, 7:00 p.m. at Nationwide Arena

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Florida Panthers Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

For the second of four meetings this season, the Canes will face-off against the Blue Jackets, this time in Columbus. The first meeting was a predictably grinding matchup in the Canes second game of the season which saw them fall in overtime after squandering a power play in the extra period. Scoring will be at a premium, as in each of the previous four meetings, the Canes have scored two goals or fewer in achieving a 1-2-1 record.

Columbus coach John Tortorella preaches a gritty defensive style that emphasizes blocked shots and clogged up shooting and passing lanes. One thing that has made, and can continue to make, life more miserable against Blue Jackets is falling behind first. Once Columbus gains an advantage, one of their main talents has been bending the pace and style of the game to their advantage by getting pucks deep into the offensive zone and unleashing a talented forecheck.

Their goal prevention talents are a solid reflection of their head coach and their two-time Vezina winning netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, but the Jackets’ offensive talents have propelled them to a different level in the NHL in the past season and a half. While talented acquisitions such as Artemi Panarin and Seth Jones lead the team offensively, the true strength of the Columbus attack is in their sheer depth. Every line has talent and scoring ability, which makes this team a unique matchup in the modern NHL. The Blue Jackets have had a whopping 22 players dent the score sheet this season, with 14 of those with at least five points.

If the Canes are to compete on the road with a quality opponent, they must capitalize offensively when given their opportunities, and getting a fast start is certainly the best recipe for any kind of success.

What to Watch For

  • Friday’s game is the front-end of a back-to-back for each team. Will Bobrovsky be used in the net, or will he be saved for the trip to Detroit the next evening? Same question for the Canes and their goalie duo.
  • If we assume that Brett Pesce will be back alongside Jaccob Slavin by Friday, expect them to log serious minutes against multiple lines for the Blue Jackets as having first change is simply going to force Bill Peters to place his best two defensemen on the ice at every opportunity available, regardless of which line comes out for Columbus.

Chicago Blackhawks

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

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Chicago Blackhawks David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Blackhawks will basically convene the first of their bi-annual 2015 Stanley Cup Champion reunion nights in Raleigh on Saturday. Seven members of that championship team will be wearing red Hurricanes sweaters as the two teams meet in Raleigh for the only time this season (bonus points if you can name the seven without cheating in the comments!).

The Hawks’ early going has been choppy as they have not been able to get on any sort of roll to move themselves into great position in the Central Division, and they currently stand at 7-6-2. Saturday’s game in Raleigh will be the middle game of a three games in four days spurt for the Hawks (it will also be the same for the Canes). While Chicago remains a formidable foe in the NHL, the Hurricanes have actually taken three of the last four meetings from the Blackhawks.

Former Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane continues to lead the Hawks’ scoring attack, as he has notched 14 points in the first 15 games of the season. Young winger Ryan Hartman has stepped up to fill the Marian Hossa void left by the sudden halt to the future Hall of Famer’s career this past offseason. As the Blackhawks continue to fight the delicate balancing act of the salary cap, they were pushed to re-acquire winger Brandon Saad in exchange for Artemi Panarin, and Saad has settled back into his previous home with a decent start as he has produced nine points in the early going. The talents and continued infusion of younger players continues around the maturing core in Chicago, but the thinning depth has started to show for a team that once was the envy of the league.

In reality, the biggest story thus far in Chicago has been the lights out play of top goalie Corey Crawford. Crawford has posted a robust .945 save percentage alongside a minuscule 1.77 goals against average. His ability in his 13 appearances to elevate his play, even at age 33, to a level not seen in his career has been a critical part of the Blackhawks staying within striking distance of the top of the Central Division.

If the Blackhawks are to continue the wave of success they have enjoyed for nearly a decade, they must hope that the young talent infused into the roster continues to take on a bigger and largely successful role, while asking that Crawford continue to put up career-best numbers that will allow the Blackhawks to remain at or near the very top of the NHL. Time will tell if that can occur.

What to Watch For

  • Just as an observation from seeing the last two seasons games between these two team in Raleigh: The Canes flat-out came ready to play each time. Perhaps it was due to the history a number of players have with the franchise, but the energy and emotion brought into the arena in each of those games was a primary factor in the outcome of the game. Will that continue again this season?
  • I would suspect that Scott Darling will get this start, with Cam Ward going the night before in Columbus, but in reality, the Columbus game should likely have the “better” netminder in the lineup, as it is a critical “4-point game” within the division. What will Bill Peters do?