Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
The high-powered Toronto Maple Leafs enter Raleigh for the second time this season still on an impressive offensive pace (second in the league in goals scored), and having scored at least two goals in each of their last 13 contests. For comparison, the Hurricanes have tallied two or more goals in only eight of their last 13 games. The Leafs’ addition of John Tavares has done exactly what you would expect, as the talented center leads the team with 18 goals and has propelled the team further into consideration as a favorite in the Eastern Conference.
Perhaps most importantly at this point, the Leafs have recently received some heavy reinforcements with the return of William Nylander from a contract holdout and the return of Auston Matthews from a shoulder ailment. With both of these dynamic young stars back in the fold, the Leafs are just now icing the true roster that Toronto fans hope can end the over half-century drought and bring home Lord Stanley.
In order for that to happen, the Leafs will need Frederik Andersen to continue his stellar work in net. In compiling a .926 save percentage and a solid 2.50 goals against average, Andersen has proven once again that he is capable of starter-level production in net. Assuming the Leafs continue their regular season trajectory, the true test for Andersen and the revamped defensive core led by Morgan Rielly (perhaps one of the most improved players in the NHL) will be winning tougher, more physical games in the playoffs. If they can do that, nothing short of a marquee place in the sports history of Toronto is theirs for the taking.
For Carolina to compete with the Leafs and replicate the victory they were able to score on November 21st, they will need another solid performance in net from Petr Mrazek, who performed exceptionally on the most recent west coast trip. With Nylander and Matthews back in the lineup on Tuesday, the Leafs will have a different look, but the same style the Canes used to scratch that 5-2 win will the the recipe for success this week.
What to Watch For
- The Canes will likely continue to mix around lines as Jordan Staal and Micheal Ferland remain sidelined with injury. Expect to get more looks at Sebastian Aho at center in the coming week.
- With Curtis McElhinney out for an undisclosed period, Mrazek will be asked to control the net during a busy week. How many starts will he get, and will Carolina actually turn to Scott Darling for a contest?
Thursday, 7:30 p.m. at Bell Centre
In a rematch of a tight, one-goal contest from just two weeks ago, the Hurricanes will venture up to Montreal for the second and final time this season to take on the Canadiens. For a deeper look at the remade Canadiens roster for this season, see the Behind Enemy Lines from two weeks ago.
Despite what some viewed as a rebuilding time for the Canadiens, they have added some pieces on the fly that has helped them be a competitive squad in front of Carey Price, even with Shea Weber missing significant time earlier this season. After last season’s disastrous season that saw the bottom fall completely out, the Habs have managed to scrap together a solid 15-10-5 start, which has them in the conversation for a possible postseason bid after a one-year absence.
While still not an offensive powerhouse, the acquisitions of Max Domi, Tomas Tatar, and Jonathan Drouin - Domi and Tatar this season, Drouin last season - have invigorated at least some offensive skill that had clearly lacked for a team that believes it still has the best netminder in the NHL to play in front of.
Truthfully, the offense has carried the Habs in the early going. Scoring at the tenth best clip in the NHL, the defensive play and goaltending have been lacking through 30 contests thus far. Price has posted a pedestrian .902 save percentage in 23 starts, having allowed 2.92 goals against per contest. Since Weber returned on November 27th against Carolina, the Canadiens have only allowed three goals once in six games. The improvement is obvious, and that trend is what the Habs hope carries forward as they attempt to navigate the difficult Atlantic Division race for the playoffs.
What to Watch For
- Special teams have steadily improved for the Canes after a horrific start to the season. Against the Canadiens and Price, the Canes must take advantage of any opportunities on the Power Play they might get, as traffic in front of Price is often the only way to beat him when he is going well.
- Last time in Montreal, Curtis McElhinney put together a highlight reel performance to steal a win for Carolina. The Canes must put together a much more even performance to extract two points this time around.
Friday, 7:30 p.m. at PNC Arena
The defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals enter PNC Arena, as the Caps and the Canes meet for the first time this season. The Caps also will enter this week securely in first place in the Metropolitan Division, after their 4-0 whitewashing of the Blue Jackets in Columbus. Despite a slower start to the season, which must have been expected with the, um, spirited celebrations following their Cup win, the Caps have returned to familiar territory in the standings based on their high-powered offense and good enough defense and goaltending to date.
Like Carolina, the Capitals have two important forwards missing time currently due to concussions. TJ Oshie and Tom Wilson each remain out. Wilson was the recipient of a very questionable hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves, which led many Caps to feel that Wilson, who has been suspended repeatedly for blows to the head, was targeted for punishment from the bruising Reaves. Having missed a 14 games for a dirty hit in the preseason, Wilson returned with a vengeance, notching 14 points in just 11 contests before the blow from Reaves. Without Oshie or Wilson, the Caps remain a formidable foe, but defending them does become easier as the depth role-players begin to be asked to do more and more for the Caps.
The bottom line in any matchup with the Caps is that you have to be able to match their speed in the neutral zone and be willing to sacrifice on the defensive end to take away good scoring chances. On the other end, when you are given goal-scoring opportunities, you must take advantage because they don’t come around as often as you would like. We shall see if the Canes can rise to the occasion on the end of back-to-back.
What to Watch For
- Both teams will be on part of a back-to-back, as the Canes will be wrapping one up, while the Caps will host the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday. Will that effect the typical matchup in goal? It is possible that Pheonix Copley could see the net, as well as a possible Scott Darling sighting for the Canes.
- It doesn’t take much to understand that keeping the Caps off the man-advantage is a must against Alex Ovechkin and his rocket from the circle. But special teams as a whole is important, as the Caps have sunk to 22nd on the penalty kill, opening up an opportunity if the Canes can remain disciplined themselves.
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
Since the Hurricanes’ meeting at the beginning of November in Glendale with the Arizona Coyotes, the Yotes have run up against mostly hard times as injuries have decimated the revamped roster, and - save for a four-game win streak - the harsh NHL schedule provided no rest for the weary. Now the Coyotes head out this week on a four-game east coast road trip that will culminate in a 1:00 p.m matinee at PNC Arena on Sunday.
Obviously, it goes without saying that an east coast team hosting a western foe at such an early hour at home should be in a good position to control the action. Right at the end of a long road trip, the Coyotes might be looking ahead to the long flight back to the Valley of the Sun as the NHL schedule marathon marches on.
But Carolina will be playing their third game in four days as well. Physically and emotionally, the advantage simply may not be there. Whichever team buys in to doing the hard things it takes to win hockey games first will likely be able to come away with two points in a game that appears to be a bit of a transition game on each teams schedule.
Regarding the injuries that have beset the Yotes, the current list of injured includes their revelation in net, Antti Raanta, who is reportedly in jeopardy of missing the rest of the season with a lower-body injury. The Yotes are also without backup netminder Darcy Kuemper, who they hope will return during the road trip. Additionally, forwards Michael Grabner and Vinnie Hinostroza remain sidelined for an undetermined amount of time and veteran defenseman Jason Demers has been lost for the season with a knee injury. The retooled Coyotes, who were competitive in the softer Pacific Division earlier in the season, are now likely destined to wait yet another season before climbing back into playoff contention. Although they currently sit atop the NHL with the fewest goals against, without Raanta or the presence of a sure-fire starting caliber replacement, it should be expected that the goal prevention skills should wane as the season progresses.
Offensively, the Coyotes do not appear to have much that can combat a drop in defensive production. Currently at 29th in goals scored, the electric Clayton Keller continues to pace the Yotes with eight goals and a total of 20 points. But outside of Keller and elite defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the depth of scoring has simply not been there for the Coyotes. In order to combat the injuries they have been dealt, the Yotes must receive more production from the likes of Derek Stepan, Alex Galchenyuk and Richard Panik who were each brought to the desert to provide significant secondary scoring for Arizona, but have yet to put any sort of stretch of good play together.
The bottom line for Sunday’s matchup is that this game will be more about character and will than about strategy and matchups. Which team will arrive ready and willing to take up a 60 minute fight? The answer to that question will very likely determine the winner.
What to Watch For
- Who will man the net for Arizona? A revolving door has been in place, but perhaps Kuemper will return. Regardless, the Canes have struggled previously against backups, so Sunday will provide another opportunity to see if the Canes can find some holes in net against a backup.
- If the Ferland and/or Staal injuries extend to the end of this coming weekend, might the Canes reach down to Charlotte for some fresher legs and return Martin Necas to the Canes lineup for the first time since October 16th?