Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. at Amalie Arena
The week for the Carolina Hurricanes begins with a meeting in the warm city of Tampa, against a team who has provided a cold reception to many of their opponents this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts boost the best record in the NHL at 30-9-3, good for a league-high 63 points. Very clearly the best team in the NHL for the first half, the Lightning have a wonderful mix of established veterans, young stars with significant experience of their own, and fresh talent that has led them to separate themselves from their other Atlantic Division rivals.
Back in October, the Canes welcomed the Lightning to Raleigh, where the guests proceeded to flex their muscles in a 5-1 win. This time around, the Canes hope to return the favor as they continue their four-city road trip.
As you would imagine on a team with not only the NHL’s best record, but also the top-ranked goal-scoring team and third-best goals allowed numbers, the Lightning have quite a few leaders and heroes. The first full season with Andrei Vasilevskiy has to be considered an absolute success (his .935 save percentage is tops among full-time NHL starters), and while you can certainly give credit to his teammates, Vasilevskiy also has had a penchant for winning games on his own, as his league-leading six shutouts would attest. Offensively, Steven Stamkos still is an incredible threat from anywhere on the ice, but this season continued a trend from last year in that Nikita Kucherov has quickly become the heartbeat of the Lightning attack. At 59 points (27 goals, 32 assists), Kucherov controls the game on the offensive end in a way that few players in the NHL can. Last season, he took over power plays, but this season has seen him distribute more on the man advantage (18 PP assists, mostly to Stamkos, who has 12 PP goals).
But the offense is up and down the powerful Bolts lineup with ten players with 24 points or more on the season. Included in that is the terrific 21-year-old Brayden Point, who has chipped in 16 goals and 20 assists, but also 19-year-old defenseman Mikhail Sergachev who has tallied 26 points. Sergachev was a much discussed offseason acquisition, as he was brought in from Montreal in the trade of Jonathan Drouin. The Lightning must feel very fortunate to have brought in a defenseman who they believe can be a force to reckon with for years to come on the blueline.
While the typical names from the recent run for Tampa such as Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson still create plenty for this team, they are allowed to be the cogs in the machinery, not the headliners (Hedman aside, as he remains one of the six best defenseman in the league). As the season heads into its second half, and barreling towards an All-Star break that is appropriately taking place in Tampa, the Lightning are poised to be the most serious Cup-contender in the Eastern Conference.
If the Hurricanes hope to have a chance to get back in the win column Tuesday, they must get off the bus with their best game, because their 16-3-1 home record makes it very clear that only a premium effort will stand a chance.
What to Watch For
- The Hurricanes look to bounce back from the drubbing in Boston. Who will be given the shot in net?
- Special Teams. The Bolts have one of the most dynamic power play structures in the NHL with Kucherov and Stamkos headlining, but the penalty kill has been below average. Minimizing the opportunities on the PP will be crucial, as will converting when given a chance a man up.
Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at Capital One Arena
Friday, 7:30 p.m. at PNC Arena
The Hurricanes will take part in the first old-fashioned back-to-back of the season with the Washington Capitals on Thursday and Friday. Check out last week’s preview for a bit more depth on the Caps. In terms of the current story for the Caps, it revolves around one person. The Great 8, Alex Ovechkin, came alive in the third period in Raleigh last week, notching the game-tying goal in the third, before potting the game-winner in overtime . He followed that performance up with another two point performance on Sunday versus the St. Louis Blues. When Ovi is on one of his hot streaks, the only way to keep him out of the net is keeping him away from the puck, which is obviously much easier said than done.
Carolina will have to provide better gap control on the rush, as that was part of the breakdown in multiple goals allowed last week in the sloppy 5-4 loss at home. If the Canes can do that, they have shown consistently that this is a team they can skate with and play with. Expect two very competitive games within the Metropolitan Division. While the Canes may not catch the Caps in the standings, it is important for them to get points from every possible source. Sometimes that means going toe to toe with a division leader. On Thursday and Friday, they will be able to provide themselves a pretty good measuring stick.
What to Watch For
- Chippy play was part of the program last week in Raleigh. A questionable hit from Brooks Orpik led to some harsh words, and Phil Di Giuseppe appeared to be looking for a fight that never came. With a back-to-back looming, I expect physicality to be a big part of the message.
- Both teams will likely use two goalies in the pair of games. Not drawing conclusions from any decision that might be made, but it will be interesting to see who matches up at home or on the road, and who matches up with Braden Holtby.
Sunday, 3:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
While the Calgary Flames are certainly still right in the thick of the playoff hunt out West with a 21-16-4 record, the big story out of Western Canada right now is the rumor that NHL-legend and current Flame Jaromir Jagr is “working on an exit” from Calgary. The 45-year-old has been battling injury of late, and has yet to provide the on-ice contribution that the Flames had hoped he would have. It is possible by the time the Flames arrive this weekend that he is no longer within the organization.
For the Flames currently on the ice, a little three-game winning streak has boosted morale, as the Flames try to fight through the logjam that has six teams within a point of the last wildcard spot in the West.
The contributors for the Flames are the usual suspects, as Johnny Gaudreau paces the team with 46 points (only 13 goals, but a whopping 33 assists). Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk follow suit at second and third in scoring. From there, a lack of scoring depth has plagued the Calgary attack, which is why the 22nd ranked offense has yet to provide enough punch to make the Flames consistently dangerous.
Veteran Mike Smith has been brilliant in his first season in Alberta, as his .920 save percentage and 2.56 goals against average have him up for All-Star consideration in the Pacific Division. Smith has been a workhorse as well, starting and finishing all 35 games he has played. At age 35, you have to wonder how sustainable that might be and if perhaps the Flames might need to ease the burden on their veteran backstop as the dog-days of the season approach.
One area of concern for Calgary the entire season has been special teams. The 21st ranked power play has, much like Carolina’s, failed to gain the cohesiveness that head coach Glen Gulutzan desires with his younger core together, as well as capable bombers manning the point. Additionally, a poor penalty kill ranked 25th in the league has not provided a dependable unit for the team to hang its hat on.
If the Hurricanes wish to get two points in the Flames only visit to Raleigh for the season, taking advantage of special teams will go a long way in contributing.
What to Watch For
- While the Flames are spending the whole week out east, it is important to note the early start time. Carolina should be able to take advantage of the Flames if they come out with the needed jump and energy early.
- In the matchups with less familiar foes, it is often more difficult to determine the on-ice matchups that a coach would like to create. Who will Bill Peters decide to line up Jordan Staal and his line (whether Sebastian Aho is back or not) with? How about Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce? The matchups will be interesting to watch.