Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. at Amalie Arena
The Tampa Bay Lightning, who many prognosticators have set as the favorite in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, have gotten off to a decent start as they are 2-1 on the young season. Still in the midst of a season-opening five-game homestand, the Lightning welcome the Carolina Hurricanes with a roster that is teeming with explosive offensive talent, and a young netminder who has proven himself worthy of his #1 status on a legitimate Cup contender.
Head coach John Cooper has been given the luxury of two Rocket Richard and Hart Trophy candidates on separate lines in Nikita Kucherov and captain Steven Stamkos. The two superstars combined for 186 points in 2017-18, and combine with uber-offensive D-man Victor Hedman to give the Bolts what may be the most dynamic power play in all of hockey. Converting at a clip of nearly 24% a season ago, this high-powered offensive machine consistently makes opponents who spend time in the penalty box pay.
Not much was done in the offseason to add to the Lightning roster, who instead focused on locking up their current stars such as Kucherov and late season acquisition Ryan McDonagh, who should provide greater dividends now that he has had more time to play with his fellow teammates on the blueline. Speaking to their great depth that pairs nicely with the star power they possess, the Lightning return six players outside of Kucherov, Stamkos and Hedman who produced 35+ points just a season ago, which all contributed to the most potent offense in the league in scoring 296 goals.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has become firmly entrenched as the top goalie and should only continue to improve in his age-24 season. Posting a .920 save percentage in 64 starts last year, Vasilevskiy should be more than capable of posting similar numbers in both games played and performance if he stays healthy.
If the Hurricanes hope to go into Tampa and compete with the best the Eastern Conference has to offer, they must continue to play with the same compete level they have displayed thus far this season, but they also must avoid the penalty box and perhaps increase their own production on the man advantage. If they can win special teams, expect another highly competitive early season test.
What to Watch For
- As mentioned, the Canes have struggled on the power play early on, but one weakness for the Lightning last season was their 28th ranked penalty kill (76.03%). Can Carolina figure out their PP and convert when given the chance?
- While the Lightning have only played three contests to date (by comparison, tomorrow’s tilt is game number seven for the Canes), they have yet to hand a start to their backup netminder. With no back-to-back until they hit the road this coming weekend, perhaps the Bolts will follow what the Winnipeg Jets did yesterday and get their backup in a game at home? Look for Louis Domingue as a possible option on Tuesday.
Saturday, 1:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
In a rare occurrence, the Hurricanes are hosting a home matinee during the North Carolina State Fair as they take on the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday afternoon. Off to a similarly solid start as the Canes, the Avs (3-1-1) begin an East Coast road trip that week that includes games in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia in addition to their visit to Raleigh.
Following a first-round playoff exit a season ago, the Avs did not overhaul their roster, but rather attempted to supplement it. They did so by improving their goaltending tandem by adding Philipp Grubauer, and adding depth with Ian Cole on defense and Matt Calvert up front.
2017-18 served as the launching point for Nathan MacKinnon’s ascension into superstar status. His 97-point campaign, paired with the explosion of Mikko Rantanen (84 points), gives the Avs a 1-2 punch of under-23 year old forwards that may be the best in the NHL. Captain Gabriel Landeskog has become the veteran leader, while still just 26-years-old himself. While there is some depth to the scoring with talented forwards such as Alexander Kerfoot, Carl Soderberg, Blake Comeau, and defenseman Tyson Barrie, the key to beating the Avs certainly revolves around slowing the top line of Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen.
Defensively, the Avs would appear to be somewhat vulnerable on the blueline, as the acquisition of Ian Cole was the best Colorado could do in an attempt to sure up their defense. It is telling, however, that Cole is playing top-four defenseman minutes, while he may be best suited as a member of a bottom pairing, like he was for much of his time in Pittsburgh. In net, Semyon Varlamov and Grubauer would appear to form a stout tandem to help that average blueline. Varlamov provided a solid .920 save percentage in 47 starts last season, while Grubauer was a huge part of the Capitals Stanley Cup winning season, backing up Braden Holtby with a .923 save percentage in 28 starts in 2017-18.
Carolina will need to play a sound defensive game against the top line for Colorado, and would benefit if they continue to stress all three pairings for the Avs to generate offensive opportunities.
What to Watch For
- With such a potent top line coming into PNC Arena, we will get to see how stringent Rod Brind’Amour is in terms of attempting to match lines against the Avs top group. Will Staal’s trio, as well as the Slavin-Hamilton pairing, see the lion’s share of time against the high-powered top line for the Avs?
- A rarity, the Saturday matinee could potentially provide a solid crowd for the Canes with the State Fair in full swing. It will be interesting to see what the response is to this occurring after years of concern about potential logistical issues.