Let’s get the realm of the improbable, and likely the impossible, out of the way first. If the Carolina Hurricanes harbor any delusions of making an incredible and historic late push for a wildcard spot, they must sweep the four points available against the New York Islanders over the next two days. I know, very few people have any thought of that currently, but I wanted to reach out to those who may be clinging to that lifeboat.
Regarding the Islanders, their improvement under interim coach, and Hurricane Stanley Cup winner, Doug Weight has propelled them right into the thick of the battle for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Currently trailing the Toronto Maple Leafs by one point with 15 games to play, the Isles have been jump-started under Weight with a 15-7-3 record in his 25 games behind the bench. A slow start under former head coach Jack Capuano dug the Isles a hole they have been feverishly trying to dig out of for the better part of three months. Whether they have enough in the tank to take it across the finish line is still to be determined.
The story of this season for the Islanders begins in the place that most stories about the Islanders begin, and that is with captain John Tavares. Tavares leads the Isles with 58 points, including 25 goals, and has been the anchor as the Islanders have steadied their ship from their stormy start which did not see them best NHL .500 until they reached 18-17-8 a full 43 games into the season. Most of the talk surrounding Tavares has been regarding his contract, which ties him to the Islanders through the 2017-18 season, but is eligible for extension as of July 1. Any discussion of the Islanders as a contender either in the present or in the near future revolves around Tavares’ status going forward.
As the Islanders enter the back-to-back with the Hurricanes, they come in hot offensively, scoring three or more goals in 16 of their last 21 games. On the other hand, the Isles have allowed three or more goals in 12 of those 21 games, which points to the greater trend for this team. The Isles rank in the top-10 in goals scored, but rank a mere 24th in goals allowed.
This poor defensive performance can be chalked up to poor play by Jaroslav Halak, who was projected to be the top netminder, but who has only played in 21 games all season and currently finds himself in the AHL. His replacement, Thomas Greiss has been serviceable and solid, but has not been able to make up for a defense and style which has allowed the 8th most shots to be fired on goal in the entire league. Seeing close to 32 shots per game, Greiss has provided a respectable .916 save percentage in his 42 games played. Jean-Francois Berube will take the net tonight, meaning that Greiss will likely face the Canes in Raleigh tomorrow.
Offensively for the Isles, other than Tavares, look for Josh Bailey who has had a breakout season as a scorer, as he has already set a career high with 49 points on the season. Along with Anders Lee and Brock Nelson, they have filled the offensive void left by the departure of Kyle Okposo to Buffalo. That void was supposed to be filled by free agent Andrew Ladd, but Ladd has disappointed with his 26 total points and minus-11 +/- rating.
For the Canes, tonight’s game will hopefully be more of the same, as Carolina has notched two of their 27 victories against the Islanders, scoring twelve goals in the two outings. For the offensive production to continue, the Canes must keep the pace up and continue to create a high volume of chances. Capitalizing on their power play opportunities will be important, but righting the ship with the penalty kill will also be key. Carolina has dropped to 5th best in the NHL on the PK, but the Islanders come into the week with a power play which rates as only the 26th best in the league. The Hurricanes cannot afford to help the Islanders improve upon that.
What to Watch For
- Since this is a two-game stint, it will be interesting to see how the match-ups differ from one night to the next. Expect to see Jaccob Slavin and Justin Faulk continue to log heavy minutes, likely against Tavares’ line whenever possible.
- Cam Ward gets the start tonight, and Bill Peters hinted strongly that Eddie Lack will play tomorrow night in Raleigh, so both teams will use both of their goaltenders in the two-game set.
- While the offensive explosions of the first two match-ups have made for fine viewing, expect the two games upcoming to include a bit tighter checking. With the Islanders on the cusp of a playoff berth and four points for the taking in the span of about 27 hours, expect an inspired group to arrive. Can the Canes match that intensity?