Friday, 7:30 p.m. at PNC Arena
Following a long All-Star and bye week break, the Carolina Hurricanes return to home ice on Friday night to resume the push for their first playoff spot in ten years. Their return to action will see them welcome the defending Western Conference Champions, the Vegas Golden Knights. The Canes dropped the matchup earlier this season in the midst of their five-game losing streak in early November.
The Knights have recovered very nicely from a slow start that saw them begin the season 1-4 and not climb above NHL .500 until they were 13-12-1 just after Thanksgiving. Now sitting at 29-19-4 and a full 10 points into a top-three spot in the Pacific Division, a playoff return in their second season appears almost a foregone conclusion.
Vegas continues to be led by a deep collective of players and by the man who has become the face of the franchise in Marc-Andre Fleury. The 34-year-old netminder has posted another solid season with a .911 save percentage and 2.49 goals against in a whopping 45 starts in the first half. That total is three more than John Gibson, the next closest contender as the iron-man in net for the NHL. With his age, his previous extended seasons including last year’s Stanley Cup run, and his spotty injury history, some wonder if a bit of rest might be in order down the stretch to help the veteran recharge for what the Knights hope will be another long run deep into Spring.
Offensively, Vegas has fallen a bit off the goal-scoring pace they produced at a season ago, but they still boast a tremendously deep, four-line attack that can score from every level and every line. While Alex Tuch has taken the reins as the leading scorer with a somewhat modest 40 points on season, he is followed closely by the likes of Jonathan Marchessault (35 points), William Karlsson (32 points), Max Pacioretty (28 points), Reilly Smith (27 points), and Cody Eakin (26 points). Having a lineup full of solid, sound players (without perhaps a superstar) has provided Gerard Gallant a wonderful opportunity to roll four lines in a fairly even manner, and demand a fast and intense style of play that less complete teams have been unable to keep up with. Perhaps the layoff of more than a week for each team will provide a disruption in the rhythm and pace that makes the Golden Knights one of the toughest matchups in the league.
In order to stay with Vegas, the Canes must make sure to provide ample amounts of energy early, and do what seemingly all teams that are successful after lengthy layoffs do: make simple plays. The more pucks and traffic the Canes can get to the net, the better off they will be against this tough Western Conference opponent.
What to Watch For
- As mentioned previously, both teams are coming off a layoff. Whichever team shows they have activated legs early should have a significant advantage. Stick-handling and other fancier or timing-based plays tend to suffer after a break, so expect the successful team to resort to some basics to get themselves going.
- Rod Brind’Amour has mixed the defensive pairings some recently. What will those look like post-break?
Sunday, 2:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
The Calgary Flames and the former Canes who are in tow quickly return the favor and arrive at PNC Arena for the return of Bill Peters, Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, and Derek Ryan. As with the initial return of Jeff Skinner with the Buffalo Sabres, Canes fans will hope for a similar results in the win column, but will have to do so against the team that has clearly been the class of the Western Conference to date.
If you want a look at the Calgary season to date and their roster, check out the write-up from last week. The Flames are returning from their own long break this Friday with a two-game eastern swing that begins in Washington on Friday. Interestingly, the schedule and travel for the Flames takes a bit of a wicked turn in February as they partake in 13 contests over the month, with three separate east coast road trips, including the convenient Vancouver-Tampa-Florida-Pittsburgh circuit. If the Flames are to maintain their position atop the West, they will do so by earning it on the road, while earning some frequent flyer miles.
Carolina will hope that the 10-day break has cooled the white-hot Flames just a bit. Entering the break, Calgary posted three consecutive wins, while also winning 10 of their past 12, incluidng the overtime winner against the Canes in the Saddledome. Expect another tight and exciting matchup between these two foes that are a conference, and nearly a continent apart, but have much familiarity with one another.
What to Watch For
- Crowd reactions to the returning coach and players is always something interesting to monitor. When Jeff Skinner returned, a small video tribute was issued by the team. Will their be anything similar for the other returners? I would imagine not, as Skinner had more moments/honors in Carolina than either Hanifin or Lindholm, but it will be interesting to see nonetheless.
- Who will be in net? Despite the long break, Carolina will be playing Friday night and then have an early matinee turnaround on Sunday. With Petr Mrazek presumably playing Friday, will he return on Sunday? Will Alex Nedeljkovic be recalled for his second NHL start? Will Curtis McElhinney return from injury and head directly into the crease?