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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Ducks, Golden Knights, Sabres and Blue Jackets

A busy week sees the Canes conclude their western road trip with a back-to-back, then return east for another back-to-back.

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Vegas Golden Knights Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Anaheim Ducks

Monday, 10:00 p.m. at Honda Center

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes continue their western trip with a back-to-back beginning on Monday night in Anaheim. The Ducks have fallen down in the Pacific Division race since their victory in Raleigh on October 29th, with a 2-4-4 record in their last 10 games. This contest comes at a crossroads for each team, as the Canes are in the middle of a lengthy road trip, and the Ducks embark on a potentially season-defining six-game road trip of their own following Monday night’s contest.

Injuries have played a significant role in this season in Anaheim. Top-end players have missed extensive time, and currently the Ducks are operating without important players such as Ryan Kesler, Hampus Lindholm and Patrick Eaves. Expectations are that Ryan Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg will return to the lineup tonight, which could boost the scoring punch for the Ducks.

To this point of the season, the Ducks have had to rely heavily on their goaltending and defensive ability to tread water. Offensively, veteran Corey Perry leads the way in points with 22, but the overall production has left much to be desired. A team that has had to hope for balanced scoring has come up short too often to maintain a consistent level of performance as a team.

In net, John Gibson has been solid enough to keep his team competitive, as his .920 save percentage would attest. The biggest issue has been their inability to suppress shots. As a team, the Ducks have yielded the most shots in the entire NHL, averaging over 36 shots against per contest. Continuing that trend, and showing more physical toughness in front of each net would go a very long way for the Canes.

What to Watch For

  • The Canes have two back-to-backs this week. With the softer goal to wrap up OT in Los Angeles against Scott Darling, seeing how Bill Peters manages his goalies will be interesting. Who will get the first start of the week?
  • Will the Canes add Phil Di Giuseppe back to the lineup? His toughness, energy and physical play have been his strongest characteristics in his limited action this season. Perhaps the Canes will value that against a bigger, perhaps slower, opponent.

Vegas Golden Knights

Tuesday, 10:00 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Cinderella story of the inaugural Vegas Golden Knights season has continued in earnest all the way into December. At 19-9-1, the Golden Knights have staked themselves to second place in the Pacific Division, and continue to defy the odds and the oddsmakers in their own town.

While the start has been surprising, what is even more surprising is that Vegas has been able to overcome an injury to perhaps their most important player in franchise netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who went down with a concussion on October 15th. With Fleury slated to potentially return to the lineup on Tuesday against the Canes, the Golden Knights have overcome their first significant injury hurdle. All that is left is for this team to maintain a consistent level of play around their returning star in net.

While playing a five-headed monster in net over the past few months, Vegas collectively - but understandably - has not been reliable at goalie. Posting a combined .904 save percentage and 2.96 goals against average, it is clear to see that an unexpected uptick in offensive play from a unique collection of talent has led to the surprising start. Leading the way in the potent attack has been a deep collection of forwards, with William Karlsson (26), Jonathan Marchessault (26), James Neal (23), Reilly Smith (22), and David Perron (22) all over 20 points apiece.

When watching the Golden Knights, it is clear that speed has been a big aspect of their game, but speed alone does not put the puck into the net. The only explanation for the blossoming offense likely points to a bit of a intangible factor. The confidence wielded by every attacking player for Vegas is visible. Having watched talented offensive players lacking confidence (how often has a Cane been gripping the stick a bit too tightly when presented a scoring chance?), you can tell how far confidence can take otherwise talented players in terms of production.

For Carolina to come out of their initial trip to Vegas with a bit of the house’s money, they must remain disciplined in their own zone and avoid defensive breakdowns. These types of odd man breaks and grade-A chances are what Vegas has built their season upon converting. Doing so has been an issue for the Canes most of the season, particularly in the second period. To win in Vegas, that must be cleaned up.

What to Watch For

  • Controlling pace and space is the key for the Canes. If you can frustrate the Vegas offense early, tally a few at the other end, and settle into the style of game Carolina wishes to play, there is no reason they cannot escape the second game of the back to back with a big road victory.
  • Always fun to watch a new arena on TV, and take a gander at a fresh team. Can the Canes remain undefeated against the Golden Knights?

Buffalo Sabres

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

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Chicago Blackhawks Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

To conclude the long western swing, the Canes wind their way back to western...New York!? Yes, the final trip to Buffalo of the season wraps up the road trip. The Sabres bring up the rear in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference as a whole with a 7-17-6 record. This game represents an opportunity to finish the trip on a positive note and hopefully continue to turn the tide of the season in the right direction.

The Sabres have been led offensively by a reemerging performance from Evander Kane who leads the way with 27 points in just 30 games. Right behind him in the 1-2 punch on the attack is Jack Eichel who, while still providing solid production, has not yet hit the peak MVP-caliber level many Sabres fans hoped to see from him by season three.

Beyond those two, and a solid if unspectacular effort from Ryan O’Reilly (19 points), the starvation for offense has been the crippling struggle for the Sabres. At dead last in the league in goals scored (2.13 goals per game), the Sabres have not been able to score with any consistency, while stressing an average defensive core and goal-tending tandem (Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson).

Simply put, with a hole dug for themselves in the Metropolitan Division at this point, the Canes cannot afford to miss an opportunity to gain two points against the Sabres in Buffalo. Energy and execution are always keys to victory, but in finishing a long road trip, those tenets would seem to be especially valuable for Carolina to possess on Friday.

What to Watch For

  • Friday is a rare opportunity for the Canes to take on a team with a less potent power lay than their own. Winning the special teams battle will certainly be a good recipe for success.
  • While special teams are important, the Sabres also rank dead-last in the NHL in even strength goals scored. Controlling play and avoiding the penalty box would seem to swing the advantage toward the Canes as well. Nothing special is required in Buffalo other than a solid, disciplined effort on the road.

Columbus Blue Jackets

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

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

For the final time in the 2017-18 season, the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets meet on December 16th. An incredibly early juncture of the season to be completely done with a divisional foe, but that is the situation between these two Metro Division competitors.

At this point, there is not much more that can be said about the CBJ’s in this space that has not already been said. They are headlined by Vezina-winning netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, and a balanced and very potent offense that makes them a handful to deal with any given night.

One of the few teams in the NHL without any legitimate health concerns, the Blue Jackets seem poised to fight to hold onto their division lead, which last season slipped away in the ultra-competitive Metro Division.

What to Watch For

  • Carolina will be back home, but will be finishing their second back-to-back of the week against a fresher Columbus squad. Creating offense is always an issue for the Canes against the Blue Jackets, so establishing steady footing early will be crucial, as mustering the energy and opportunities for a comeback may be difficult.
  • These teams are very familiar with each other, so preparation should be easier for the Canes than if they were facing a somewhat unfamiliar opponent. But expect it to again be tough sledding on the offensive end for the Canes, as they have averaged two goals per game against Columbus in the three games played this season (1-0-2).