Friday, 7:30 p.m. at PNC Arena
A team that for years felt as though they may be coming towards the end of their run of contention with aging stars such as Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, and Joe Pavelski, the San Jose Sharks have found another way as they have reloaded their roster with a mix of those remaining veterans, and prime trade acquisitions in Erik Karlsson (acquired this offseason) and Evander Kane (acquired at last season’s deadline). Toss in a few developing contributors such as Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl and Kevin Labanc and the talent level for the Sharks continues to be right near the top of the NHL.
Offensively the Sharks spent last season near the middle of the pack after a lengthy injury to Thornton. After acquiring Kane their production did improve, and adding the premier offensive defenseman in the league in Karlsson will only help add to the scoring. In the early part of the season, the anticipated increased contribution from younger forwards such as Meier and Labanc seems to be working according to plan and the Sharks have averaged just under 3.5 goals per game through their first nine contests. Thornton is nursing an infection in his surgically repaired knee and is questionable for Friday night, but outside of that the Sharks have avoided injury in the early going as they attempt to keep pace with the elite in the Western Conference.
Goalie Martin Jones has begun the season slowly with a save percentage under .900 (albeit barely, at .899) in seven starts. There is every reason to believe that those numbers will improve. And even if they don’t, his goals against average of 2.60 still places him well under the typical scoring output of his own squad. With a team designed specifically to win now, the Sharks are poised for a big season, and their 5-3-1 start has done nothing to diminish expectations in the Bay Area. Expect to see San Jose among the contenders out West come playoff time.
What to Watch For
- San Jose has a pair of lines at the top that have produced a lot of their scoring, Kane-Pavelski-Labanc and Hertl-Couture-Meier. It will be important for Carolina to matchup with those lines and hopefully play at least even on the scoreboard against them. If they can do that, it will allow their depth to make the difference in the game.
- Thus far, the Sharks have been just average on the power play, but their penalty kill has been one of the league’s best at 84.2%. Carolina must continue to improve their special teams and find a way to stay even or come out on top in the battle of special teams.
Sunday, 5:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
Just a few weeks after their first visit to Raleigh on Opening Night, the New York Islanders return for their final trip to North Carolina of the season. The Hurricanes will look to exact a measure of revenge after falling in overtime in the opener, behind a sparkling effort from Thomas Greiss.
For a more in depth look at the changes in the Isles roster, check out the Behind Enemy Lines from just before the Opener. As far as how this season has begun to unfold for the Isles...well, a middling 3-4 start was not unexpected for a team that lost its best player via free agency and managed to do little to actually replace his production. The next star for the franchise is expected to be Mathew Barzal, and with seven points in seven games, he has done nothing to lessen the expectation that he is poised to become one of the premier offensive threats in the entire NHL. However, with only one goal to his name, it is clear that teams are attempting to stop him at all costs.
So far this season, the Islanders have been able to get their goals against under control. Under a more structured system with new coach Barry Trotz, the Isles are hoping to compensate for their anticipated drop in goal production with a much needed reduction in goals allowed after finishing dead last a season ago. Greiss has begun the season solidly and his new partner in net Robin Lehner has also been an improvement as they have combined for a .922 save percentage in the first seven games.
The addition of grinders like Matt Martin and Tom Kuhnhackl to player such as Cal Clutterbuck will add physicality to the lineup that should help defensively, but certainly won’t do much in terms of recouping the much needed goal scoring this roster lost. That burden will fall almost exclusively on Barzal and the top two lines for New York. Barzal, Andrew Ladd, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey will have to carry heavy loads of the offense if this team hopes to stay involved in the Metropolitan Division.
What to Watch For
- The Isles will be on the back end of a back-to-back as they come in to Raleigh for this late afternoon start. As always, jumping on a team fast and early is key. If the Canes can push the pace, will the Isles have the legs to compete in the third period?
- The Islanders are right at the bottom of the league in power play opportunities for and against. They don’t spend time in the box, so the Hurricanes’ control of five-on-five hockey should be a bigger advantage than normal on Sunday, if they can continue that trend.