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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Senators, Canadiens, Red Wings, and Sharks

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Carolina returns from the All-Star break with a pivotal homestand.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Ottawa Senators

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

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes begin the “second half” with a visit from a team that was one goal away from the Stanley Cup Final just a season ago, the Ottawa Senators. That must feel like a long time ago for the Sens, who have stumbled this season near the bottom of the Atlantic Division with a 15-23-9 record. Two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson still leads the way for the Senators, fresh off yet another All-Star appearance, but nothing much else has seemed to go right for the Sens as they sit at 29th in the league in both goals for and goals against. Even the trade for Matt Duchene has provided little spark, with Duchene beginning his Senators career on a bit of a cold spell with only 15 points (seven goals) in 33 games. While this season certainly appears to be over in terms of making the postseason, the Senators now must figure out who will be a part of their teams going forward, and potentially make some tough decisions on scorers such as Mike Hoffman as the trade deadline approaches.

As with most teams who experience struggles, you cannot pinpoint just one thing that has led to the downfall. Injuries, poor performance from key players, and sometimes just pure rotten luck all play a part in how a season unfolds poorly. One area that proved to be a great strength in the Senators Cinderella run to Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals last season was the high-end play in net from veteran goalie Craig Anderson. His .926 save percentage in the regular season was backed up with a .922 save percentage in the playoffs, and allowed the defensive-minded style of head coach Guy Boucher to keep games tight and allow the Sens to compete and win. This season has been a completely different story for Anderson, as he has struggled from the start with a .901 save percentage in 33 starts, while giving up a robust 3.20 goals against.

Offensively, there hasn’t been much excitement to speak of, with Mark Stone and the aforementioned Karlsson and Hoffman the only three Sens above the 30 point mark to date. While last season’s Senators only finished 22nd in the league in scoring, this season they have not even been able to reach those levels which, with the leakier defense and goal-tending, have turned a lot of the games they won 2-1 or 3-2 into losses by the same total this season. There are some players that may be on the trading block if the Senators decide it is type for a face lift in order to attempt to build a winning team around Karlsson as he plays his current prime seasons.

The formula for a Carolina victory is simple against the Senators. Continue to frustrate the lacking Senators scorers with tight gaps on the rush, take as much ice away from Karlsson in the offensive zone as possible, and pepper the net with shots. Rebounds will be available, and following a few days off, at times the scoring touch can be dulled, so taking advantage of as many “garbage” opportunities in front of the net as possible is of great importance.

What to Watch For

  • 29 seems to be the lucky number for the Senators, as they are not only 29th in GF and GA, but also on the power play and penalty kill. Taking advantage of this special teams matchup is a great chance to get an edge.
  • Will Sebastian Aho return to the lineup? That is obviously a huge question that all Canes fans can’t wait to have answered. (Sounds like he will, though.)

Montreal Canadiens

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

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The Hurricanes pick right back up with the Canadiens, right off the final game before the break, which saw the Canes escape Montreal with a wild 6-5 win. For a bit more of a look at the Canadiens roster, take a look at the preview for last week’s tilt.

Carolina is looking for a season-sweep of the Canadiens, something the Canes have not done since their 2005-06 Stanley Cup season against the Canadiens in the regular season.

While this season has certainly not gone according to plan for Claude Julien and his team, they certainly have not been helped by the absence of perennial All-Star Shea Weber, who will likely miss another two weeks to a month with a foot injury that has limited him to only 26 games. Without Weber, the Habs defense has left All-Star goalie Carey Price out to dry far too often, as witnessed in last weeks matchup with the Canes, and their already limited attack has been further muted with the loss of their most important power play piece in Weber as well. Some of the bright spots include the recent resurgence of Max Pacioretty, which could land the Captain on the trade market soon, and development of young performers such as Charles Hudon (two goals against Carolina on Thursday) and Phillip Danault.

While a hot stretch in the next week or two could put the Habs in a position to have an outside shot at the postseason, it is most likely that they will be looking to sell before the deadline. The Canes can help ensure that fact by adding yet another two points against Montreal.

What to Watch For

  • Will this be Scott Darling’s return to the net? With a very busy month ahead, getting both goalies playing (and playing well) will be critical. This could be the starting point for Darling.
  • Thursday night, the Canadiens created a great amount of their offense from offensive zone faceoff wins. Jordan Staal and Derek Ryan won some key faceoffs towards the end, but pay attention to how Carolina defends in those situations this Thursday.

Detroit Red Wings

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

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Detroit Red Wings Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, in the second of a back-to-back, the Canes again host an Atlantic Division foe who they visited with recently. The Canes were able to visit Little Caesars Arena and leave with a 3-1 win against the Red Wings on January 20th. Check out last week’s preview yet again for more detail on the Wings.

The continued struggle for the Red Wings, which has seen them fall last season from the playoffs, and likely to miss again in 2018, is the continuation of the trend for younger and faster teams succeeding in the modern NHL. While teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs have adapted to a more up tempo style, teams with older skill players across their lineups, and not just sprinkled into the lineup, are struggling to keep up. In order for the Canes to again defeat the Wings, it is important to rely on their speed to both create space in the offensive zone and to take away space in the defensive zone.

Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou certainly possess some of the desired speed for Detroit, but matching their talents is something that Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce should be up to the task of. Getting this team at home, even on the second in a back-to-back, represents a good opportunity for the Canes to show off a disciplined, yet aggressive defensive game that should lead to chances on the other end. If Carolina can get out in front early, look for the Canes to attempt to play much the same kind of game they played in the third period against these Wings just over a week ago.

What to Watch For

  • Trevor Daley could return in time for the game in Raleigh this Friday. His presence would increase the depth on the blueline for the Wings.
  • Former Hurricanes legend Martin Frk has become a dependable bottom-six player in Detroit this season, and has posted a respectable 17 points in 40 games. No word on what sort of video tribute awaits the former Cane.

San Jose Sharks

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: New York Rangers at San Jose Sharks John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Super Bowl Sunday will see the Hurricanes play host to a matinee against a Western Conference power in the San Jose Sharks. Since the Canes last met the Sharks out in San Jose, one key loss has occurred for the Sharks. Last week, Joe Thornton had surgery to repair his right MCL, and he is in danger of missing the rest of the season. At 38, Thornton was still one of the top point-getters on the Sharks veteran roster, and they are sure to miss his presence the rest of the season and during their playoff run.

The eastern swing post-break for the Sharks will see them visit five cities in just eight days, including stops in Pittsburgh and Columbus (for all you scoreboard watchers out there). The question that remains is exactly how the Sharks will reduce the impact of losing their top center. The Sharks still possess the Western Conference equivalent to Erik Karlsson in All-Star Brent Burns. His 41 points as a defenseman are tops on the team, and his defensive game continues to improve every season. And perhaps that is where the discussion of the Sharks replacing Thornton should focus, because under head coach Peter DeBoer, the Sharks have developed into a team that relies on their defensive acumen more than their offensive skills. Make no mistake, they do have talented scorers with Burns, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski still around, but they have increasingly become a defensive first team. Just middle of the pack in goals scored, they are seventh in goals against. Providing that big, dependable body defensively might be just as important in replacing Thornton as supplying the offense he produced. Whether this team can do so remains to be seen.

What to Watch For

  • Yes, the Sharks will be on the east coast all week, but still an early matinee for a team from out west is certainly a chance to jump out early with a team potentially sleep walking on their way out of town. Getting an early goal or two could be huge in a game that is sure to be defense-first.
  • How the Sharks shake out their lines without Thornton around will be interesting. Expect Bill Peters and the Canes pro scouting to watch them closely this week to try and get a feel for how they may best be able to deploy their lineup with the last change at home. Who is the focal point they will look to place Slavin and Pesce up against more often than not?