Wednesday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
The Carolina Hurricanes come out of the Christmas break and hit the ground running with three games in four days, beginning with their first meeting of the season with the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens entered the break in the midst of a season-long seven game road trip, and will play the first of a back-to-back in Raleigh before heading to Tampa to continue the trip against the Lightning.
The Canadiens currently have the Montreal media collectively in a frenzy, as they often do, because of their lackluster play to begin the season. Sitting at 16-16-4, and now without star defenseman Shea Weber for an extended period of time with a foot injury, the Habs will look for increased offense from an under-performing crop of forwards, and the return to All-World status of starting netminder Carey Price to get them out of what could be a season slipping away.
As the Canadiens attempt to jump-start their season, they will hope to have more production come specifically from oft-maligned captain Max Pacioretty and this season’s main offseason acquisition, Jonathan Drouin. With 20 and 18 points respectively, the lack of offensive leadership has not been hidden, as the slumping performance from these two key performers has led the Habs to rank just 25th in scoring.
Price, the franchise’s marquee player, has had a rather forgettable start to his campaign, with a pedestrian .904 save percentage and a goals against a shade over three per game, while being limited to only 23 starts in 36 games due to injury. Simply put, with the way this team is built (especially with Weber out), Price must play at his Vezina-winning finest in order for this team to compete for a playoff spot. With the halfway point rapidly approaching, the clock is ticking for their hero to arrive.
What to Watch For
- With Weber out, the Canadiens’ top pairing is free agent signing Karl Alzner and Jeff Petry, which opens some holes in the lower pairings. Will the Canes be able to take advantage of what should be some opportunities to exploit a weakened D-core?
- Can Cam Ward continue his hot streak? At 5-0-1 in his last six games, Ward has made a play for his starting designation back.
Friday, 7:30 p.m. at PNC Arena
The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions make their way to Raleigh for the first of two trips on Friday. Packed in tightly along with the Canes at 39 points, and hovering around the Eastern Conference wild card cut line, the coming divisional matchups between Carolina and Pittsburgh could very well play a huge part in determining what the postseason picture in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference as a whole looks like.
After a relatively solid start to the season, the Pens have struggled to find their way leading in to the Christmas break, going 2-5-0 in the seven games leading into the holiday. In the fierce Metro Division, that sort of slide sends you all the way down to sixth place.
The Penguins have been led statistically by the usual suspects, as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel pace the Pens in scoring. The only surprise of that being that Kessel actually is the leading scorer, having tallied 39 points on the season to date. What you see after those three stalwarts is the reason that the Pens are more average than the past few seasons. A lack of depth in scoring has led the contributions of the big three forwards to only result in the 16th most potent offense in the league, after finishing first last season and third the year prior. While the core of the Penguins championship teams are still around, the supporting cast has changed, and not always for the better.
One aspect of the Pens’ roster that has continued it’s previous excellence has been the power play. Currently rated third in the league, the Pens have netted 33 of their 104 goals on the man-advantage, the highest percentage in the league (31.7%). If the Canes are to have success on Friday, one red-line item in the gameplan must be to avoid foolish penalties.
What to Watch For
- Matt Murray has a 4-1 record and sparkling .944 save percentage against the Canes in his young career. Can the Canes bust that sterling record?
- How will the Canes look to handle Crosby, Malkin and Kessel? With each player typically playing on their own separate lines, it is tough to use the last change to send your top pairing out on specific matchups. Where will Bill Peters deploy Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin?
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. at Scottrade Center
While the triumvirate the Canes will face on Friday against the Penguins in Crosby, Malkin and Kessel may be more decorated, the threesome of Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz for the St. Louis Blues have actually been even more productive so far this season. The emergence of Schenn, added to the roster this season, has given the Blues an offense good enough to crack the top-10 offenses in the league, and allowed the Blues to begin the season with a 23-12-2 record, good for top billing in the Central Division. Unfortunately for the Blues, Schwartz has been lost for at least another month due to an ankle injury earlier in December.
While the Blues previously have been built around a sound defensive structure and a heavy, defense-first mentality, they have been able to put together an intriguing melding of that style with a more offensive-driven game that has allowed for more creative work in the neutral and offensive zones. While the Blues must continue to work around the Schwartz injury, a more offensive-minded approach has, and should continue, to allow more of the depth players on the Blues roster to unlock their offensive game. Since the injury, the Blues have struggled offensively, certainly providing cause for concern, as they have only potted nine goals in the previous seven games.
In order to come out of St. Louis with a season split with the Blues, the Canes must continue the trend of stifling a St. Louis offense that continues to try to find its footing with the depth players on its roster. While Schwartz will return, his absence is a unique opportunity for any team getting the Blues during this stretch.
What to Watch For
- The Canes are looking to make it three straight seasons winning in the St. Louis. Can they continue their good play in the Gateway to the West?
- With this being the second of a back-to-back, will this be Scott Darling’s next chance to prove himself again? Look for Darling either Friday or Saturday.