Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
Off to a solid start, the Boston Bruins are once again expected to be right in the thick of the Atlantic Division race at the top along with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. Powered by one of the top lines in all of hockey in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, the Bruins are battling through an early rash of injuries that have sidelined key performers in Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, David Backes, and Kevan Miller. Krug is the only one expected to return for Tuesday night in Raleigh, so the Bruins will continue to lean on the top end of their forward depth and on the ageless Zdeno Chara, who currently leads all Boston skaters with 22:25 of ice time per night at age 41.
In net Boston has a bit of an interesting situation with long-standing starter Tuukka Rask, who’s production slowed a bit the past two seasons, being challenged for the top spot by journeyman backstop Jaroslav Halak who is on his fifth NHL team. Halak has basically split time with Rask and has managed a 3-0-2 record while playing to a phenomenal .945 save percentage. Rask on the other hand has been sub-par in his opportunities allowing 3.15 goal per game and sporting a lean .902 save percentage in just six games. The samples are certainly small, but it does appear that Bruce Cassidy has seen some of his confidence in Rask erode, and Halak has filled that void nicely in the early going.
For Carolina to beat a slightly undermanned Bruins team they must clearly focus on skating with and playing with the dynamic top line. Bergeron, Pastrnak and Marchand are the top three scorers, combining for 44 points in just the first 11 games, but a well-constructed effort that matches Jordan Staal and his linemates with that talented trio, as well as Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton, should go a long way in suppressing their dynamic creativity in the offensive zone. Control that line, you control the game.
What to Watch For
- Tuesday could be the anticipated season debut of the new-look Scott Darling. Derailed by a late camp injury, Darling was added to the roster last week, but has only been the backup.
- The Bruins have a top-10 power play on the young season. Carolina yielded yet another goal on the man advantage Sunday, so improvement in that area must come quickly as the Bruins arrive in Raleigh.
Friday, 10:00 p.m. at Gila River Arena
The Arizona Coyotes avoided their disastrous start from a season ago, when they lost each of their first 11 contests, and with a .500 beginning to this season, it is clear that the infusion of some additional veteran talent has put the Coyotes in a position to contend for a possible postseason bid for the first time since a surprise run to the 2012 Western Conference Final. While they are surely not favorites to do so, players such as Alex Galchenyuk, Michael Grabner, Derek Stepan (who arrived last season), and Jason Demers all are accustomed to doing so at their previous stops in the league. Combining that mix with the existing high-end talent of captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and the electric young forward Clayton Keller, and the Coyotes may have a much better team to put in front of what has become a bit of a revelation in net with Antti Raanta.
Raanta has gotten off to a solid start with a .921 save percentage in seven games, but his 47 game, .930 save percentage performance last season provided Arizona with the hope that they had finally found a top-end goalie to build out from. The 29-year-old Raanta had put up solid numbers in his earlier stops in Chicago and with the New York Rangers, but did so in a clear cut backup role behind established starters. In the desert, Raanta has been afforded to chance to develop into a full blown start himself, and his All-Star appearance last season is evidence that he has full embraced that challenge.
In their 5-5 start, the Coyotes have played plenty of goal-starved contests. They current lead the league in limiting goals, as they have given up only 20 in the 10 games played. Conversely, they are 28th in scoring themselves, having netted only 26 total goals in those 10 games. This may be more representative of the tighter, more structured style that coach Rick Tocchet would like to employ, especially with more veterans in place to execute that type of system. In order to win on the road, Carolina must continue to control the game in five on five hockey, as they have successfully done against most opponents thus far on the season. The more chances, and traffic, they create in front of Raanta, the better the chance they can come out of Glendale with a victory.
What to Watch For
- Special teams has been a tale of two units for the Coyotes. They are the only unit worse on the man advantage than the Canes, as they are dead last with only a 10.3% conversion rate. On the penalty kill, however, the Yotes have figured out their opponents and shut down opposing power plays at nearly a 90% clip (89.29%).
- Keller is an extremely talented young forward. The 20-year-old leads the Coyotes in goals (five) and overall points (seven). He will be a fun player to watch on this rare occasion of seeing the Western Conference opponent.
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena
After what can only be called the most successful inaugural season for an expansion team in modern North American sports history, the Vegas Golden Knights return for their encore with most of the same cast of characters. After getting off to a very slow 1-4 start, Vegas has clawed back to .500 as the week commences.
Last season the Golden Knights featured an extremely balanced and deep roster that rolled four lines with tremendous efficiency. This season, the only real change has been the exit of James Neal and the acquisitions of Max Pacioretty via trade and Paul Stastny via free agency to fill out the top-six. Stastny is now on injured reserve with a lower-body injury and is expected to be out until close to Christmas. Top pairing defenseman Nate Schmidt is still serving his 20-game suspension for a positive performance-enhancing drug test, which will keep him sidelined until November 18th.
With the magic carpet ride that was last season, the Golden Knights seemed to be able to play up the “nobody believes in us” mantra in their run to the Western Conference title and Stanley Cup Final appearance. This season, no one is underestimating the Golden Knights as they were inserted among the favorites to repeat out West. Offensively, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson are following up tremendous seasons with solid starts as they have provided 11 and nine points respectively. Outside of them, the offense has fallen off early on after finishing fourth in the NHL last season with 272 goals.
Marc-Andre Fleury returned to Vegas as the face of the franchise and received a healthy three-year, $21 million contract extension. Early on Fleury has struggled, posting a 5-4-1 record with heavy usage. He has only allowed 2.49 goals against per game, but has a paltry .897 save percentage on 233 shots. With their solid depth and opportunities to both get healthy and make trades if required, the Golden Knights should remain a playoff contender in the highly competitive Western Conference.
What to Watch For
- Carolina will be on a back-to-back on the road, so it will be interesting to see if this is a situation where the Canes consider Curtis McElhinney in either of these games or if his place as the third goalie on the roster is purely for roster protection at this point.
- Both the Canes and Golden Knights are in the top-five of the league in shots for and in suppressing shots against. With two teams that do so well at controlling the pace and style of the game, who will take control in their matchup?