Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at Little Caesars Arena
The Hurricanes begin their post-bye week action with the first matchup of the season with the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings entered the season coming off their first missed playoffs since 1990, and have spent the first half of this season spinning their wheels as well, having managed just an 18-19-7 record. With a peculiar mix of aging former stars and a few intriguing young talents, the Wings appear in need of a total rebuild that the Motor City hasn’t seen in over a quarter century.
The brightest spot for the Wings would have to be a trio young forwards who have gotten off to decent starts to the season and their careers. 21-year-old Dylan Larkin leads the team in points with 35 (while only managing seven goals), and wingers Anthony Mantha (23) and Andreas Athanasiou (23) are also in the top six in point production on the team. Supporting those youngsters is a veteran group of players such as Henrik Zetterberg, Mike Green, and Niklas Kronwall, just to name a few of the over-30 crowd kept around by General Manager Ken Holland in hopes that they would perform in some fashion resembling their former selves. This strategy has backfired, with the Red Wings near the bottom of the league in scoring (26th) and not all that much better in goal prevention (20th). With the same average mix in net from previous seasons in Jimmy Howard (also 33 years old) and Petr Mrazek, the results for the Wings continue to leave plenty to be desired for the team in the shiny new arena in downtown Motown.
If the Hurricanes want to avoid the funk that usually persists for teams coming off of the bye week, it would be valuable to get skating early and often against this veteran group, and bring a more attacking style, particularly in the offensive zone, with a high-pressure forecheck and aggressive defense. Scoring touch seems to be lacking when teams return from the break, so the more chances created, the better.
What to Watch For
- Having to replace Sebastian Aho is the unenviable task in front of the Hurricanes. This game will be the first indication as to how they will attempt to do so. Will Elias Lindholm slide into the line with Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen?
- A number of veteran Wings will be missing on Saturday: Justin Abdelkader, Luke Glendening, and Darren Helm will all be out. How will the Wings shuffle their lineups to accommodate?
Vegas Golden Knights
Sunday, 6:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
For the back end of the back-to-back this weekend, the Canes return home to close out their season series with the Vegas Golden Knights. The Golden Knights’ first trip to Raleigh brings the improbable team with the best record in the Western Conference into town, fresh off an impressive 4-1 win in Tampa Bay against the East-leading Lightning. The great performance from the expansion franchise has certainly raised some eyebrows across the league, but as the Golden Knights cruise to a playoff appearance in their first season of existence, there is plenty of credit to go around for this upstart team.
While the acquisition of Marc-Andre Fleury was supposed to provide the backbone of the nee franchise, his early season injury limited his playing time. While he has returned, and in fact has been excellent in his 15 games played, posting a .945 save percentage and a paltry 1.72 goals against average, his absence was covered by 3 different netminders, of different background and pedigree, all of whom had varying levels of success. Malcolm Subban (younger brother of P.K. Subban) provided a sparkling 11-2 record in 13 starts, posting a solid .918 save percentage. Maxime Legace was less successful in his 13 starts, but his .872 save percentage was wallpapered over by a burgeoning attack, which allowed him to escape with a 6-6-1 record. Lastly, Oscar Dansk chipped in a fantastic 3-0 stretch in 3 starts by stopping 88 off 93 pucks fired his way. Rarely does a team not only survive, but flourish, in the absence of their star netminder. The Golden Knights did just that.
The credit for the offensive abilities that have allowed the Golden Knights to thrive is not something that can be placed upon one player. Certainly the explosiveness of Jonathan Marchessault (which was apparent with his 50-point season in Florida last season), breakout of William Karlsson and veteran leadership of James Neal and David Perron are major contributors, but the cliche of the “whole being greater than the sum of the its parts” certainly rings true in Vegas. The Golden Knights have nine performers over 20 points on the season, with an additional five players in double-digits in points. In fact, 24 different players have tallied on the score sheet for the Golden Knights by mid season. A team with no true dominant line, but also no true weakness has preyed on teams with a constant, immovable force that continues to attack at all moments and causes opponents to eventually self-destruct under their weight.
For the Canes to earn the season sweep of the Golden Knights, they must play a complete team game, all the way through the roster, which is also a pretty good recipe for pretty much any other opponent, but is certainly easier said than done.
What to Watch For
- Prior to the break, the Canes presented a bit of a rejuvenated power play. While Vegas has been excellent as a team, their special teams units have left something to be desired including a 15th best penalty kill to go along with being 24th on the man advantage themselves. Winning the special teams matchups would be a big boost for Carolina against the balanced Vegas roster.
- Who will be in net? With a back-to-back to start off the post-bye action, the order in which the goalies appear will certainly be something to pay attention to, even if there may not be any real conclusions to draw from the assignments.
Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena
For the third time in less than a month, the Hurricanes will square off with their Metropolitan Division rival Pittsburgh Penguins. Previously we have discussed the Penguins in greater detail, but the current stretch from the Penguins has predictably placed them in position to yet again push for a playoff spot in the Metro. Since their 4-0 whitewashing at the hands of the Canes, the Pens have pieced together five wins in their last six games, vaulting them into the top wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Pens have been able to grind their way back into a playoff spot despite absences from starting goalie Matt Murray (along with less than stellar performances from Murray when he has played), by relying mostly on 22-year-old backup Tristan Jarry, who has posted a solid .919 save percentage while going 9-4-2 in 16 starts.
Phil Kessel continues to lead the Pens in points with 54 in 48 games. Sidney Crosby is right behind him with 50, and Evgeni Malkin right behind him at 49. While those three may pose just as big a threat as they used to, the depth offensively is less threatening. If you can do a good job on the “big three” and limit the impacts of their linemates, which often include combinations of Patric Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel, then you have a good opportunity to keep the Pens in check. A task which may sound simple, but in practice is far more difficult.
If the Canes are to continue their perfect mark against the Pens this season, they have to pick up right where they left off on January 4th and continue to create offense off of their stellar defense, particularly in the neutral zone.
What to Watch For
- Matt Murray has been absent with a death in the family. He is likely to have returned by the time the Canes arrive in Pittsburgh. If he were to miss until then and start against the Canes it would be 16 days between appearances for Murray. Could he be a bit rusty?
- The Canes will likely be without Brett Pesce in a critical matchup for their defense against the Pens. How will Bill Peters arrange his defense for the high-powered options the Pens possess?
Thursday, 7:30 p.m. at Centre Bell
The Hurricanes finish their week back from the bye with a trip to Montreal to face the Canadiens. If you are looking for a team that has not had much go their way this season, look no further than the Habs. Whether it be injury - Shea Weber will continue to be sidelined until the All-Star Break - or underachievement - Carey Price appears increasingly human as his .908 save percentage and 13-15-4 record can attest - the Canadiens have yet to get in gear and are in serious danger of missing out on the postseason party again in the Eastern Conference.
While so much focus can be placed on the performance of Price in goal, due to his position as the franchise player and typically is considered the linchpin to roster, the blame should also be heavily placed on the absolute lack of scoring punch that the Habs put forward. Alex Galchenyuk leads the team with a point total of only 26 more than halfway through the season. Jonathan Drouin was acquired to provided dynamic scoring on the wing, but he has only scored six goals the entire season in 40 games. Captain Max Pacioretty has provided 25 points, but without more dynamic scoring around him, the fans and media in Montreal continue to implore the captain to provide more.
In order for the Canadiens to turn their fate around, they must have a full team effort to flip the script on their current slot in the Atlantic Division. In all likelihood, they will have to begin to make some difficult decisions on who should be part of the future and who they can part with in order to recoup some needed youth and draft ammunition. But the Canes must beware, as the Habs are not done just yet, and the group of veterans in Montreal are likely to be fighting for their lives as the decisive point of the season creeps closer for the teams near the bottom of the standings. Expect a strong effort from the home team, which will need to be matched in terms of effort and execution by the visitors.
What to Watch For
- Who is gonna score for the Habs? The Canadiens are not the best at creating chances, so limiting turnovers and odd-man rushes will be a major key to victory.
- The Canes power play will have the ability to take advantage of one of the worst penalty kills in the league, as the Habs are killing just 77.93%, good for 26th in the NHL.