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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Islanders, Lightning, Sabres and Predators

Another four game week awaits the suddenly hot Canes.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Nashville Predators Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

New York Islanders

Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. at Nassau Coliseum

NHL: New York Islanders at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In their fourth and final regular season matchup with the New York Islanders, the Carolina Hurricanes will be returning to the Isles’ former — and now part-time temporary — home on Long Island. Tuesday night’s game is one of 20 games this season the Isles are playing at the old Nassau Coliseum as they await their lease ending in Brooklyn and the construction of their new arena near Belmont Park. It also suddenly represents a clash between two of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference as the Canes enter action having won four in a row and five of their previous six contests, while the Isles have won six consecutive and nine of their last ten games. With the Isles currently in a wild card spot and seven points ahead of Carolina, a win in this final matchup is critical for a Canes team in desperate need of closing ground.

Thought to be a rebuilding team after losing John Tavares, the Islanders have surprised many by remaining in the heat of the playoff race at the season’s midpoint. Head coach Barry Trotz has brought an entirely different brand of play to an organization that was at the bottom of the league in goals against and shots against just a season ago. In a stunning turnaround, the Isles now sit atop the league with the fewest goals against (107). They are on pace to shave a remarkable 77 goals off their total from last season, mostly due to a complete overhaul in system that has paid immediate dividends.

The season has not been without health issues, as Andrew Ladd remains out (since mid-November) with a leg injury and defenseman Thomas Hickey is still healing from an upper body issue. It is unknown if Valtteri Filppula will be healthy enough to return to the lineup against the Canes on Tuesday, as he has been sidelined with an upper body injury.

While their scoring has gone down from the high-octane unit from last season, Mathew Barzal is still on a near point-per-game pace as he has become the offensive focal point in replacing Tavares. He has been helped this season by new captain Anders Lee and Josh Bailey who are each having fine seasons as well, and also by a full collection of role players who have added a physical presence to the Isles, but have chipped in just enough offensively to provide a potent enough attack. In net, the collective performance by Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner has been wonderful, if unexpected. Their combined .922 save percentage and 2.41 goals against average have provided just the kind of last line of defense that Trotz has come to expect in his defensive system.

If Carolina is going to jump back into possible contention, they must take advantage of their final shot against the Islanders. Solving Greiss has been an issue, as the Canes have been held to just one goal in each of the three previous contests this season (0-2-1).

What to Watch For

  • Expect Greiss back in net, as he has stymied the Canes thrice this season. Will Carolina counter with Petr Mrazek or Curtis McElhinney?
  • The Canes were out-physicaled in the previous meetings against an Islanders team and style that they were not expecting and less familiar with. With more film to review and experience against this version of the Isles, will the Canes be able to make the adjustments to get to the scoring areas?

Tampa Bay Lightning

Thursday, 7:30 p.m at Amalie Arena

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Simply put, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been the best team in the NHL by a rather wide margin thus far in 2018-19. Despite coming off their first regulation defeat in over a month (yes, that is correct, November 27th was their last regulation loss before Saturday’s defeat in San Jose), the Lightning are a scorching 32-8-2 on the season and a full 10 points ahead of the next challenger in what appears to be a President’s Trophy season for the Bolts. In order for the Hurricanes to have any chance of knocking off the Lightning, they will have to put together the type of complete performance that they have not shown all too often this year.

What has been the catalyst for this sublime season in the Bay? Pure offensive firepower. Averaging over four goals per game, and leading the league with 176 total, the Bolts have simply vaporized opponents with a solid defense that immediately turns into a dangerous attack once the puck is retrieved. No team transitions better from defense to offense than do the Lightning, and with three players performing at better than a point-per-game pace (Nikita Kucherov - 69 points, Brayden Point - 54 points, and Steven Stamkos - 47 points), the offense can come from all facets of the lineup. Just as an example of their extraordinary depth, the Lightning have 19 different players who have achieved double digits in points. Compare that to 13 for the Hurricanes, and you can see how Carolina may be outgunned as they attempt to measure up to the Bolts.

On the other end of the ice, Andrei Vasilevskiy has proven that he is a netminder capable of leading a Stanley Cup contender. His terrific .920 save percentage in 22 games has shown this, but the ability of Louis Domingue to fill in at an acceptable level has allowed Vasilevskiy to get and hopefully remain healthy and fresh for a longer playoff run. Time will tell if this tremendous team is built to win a championship, and the trade deadline may see further additions, but expect this to be a team that is in the mix late into the Spring.

What to Watch For

  • How will the Canes go about attacking the Bolts? The pace and looseness of the game will be interesting to see, as the Lightning’s transition from defense to offense typically gives them a chance to dictate pace better.
  • Staying out of the box is paramount for the Canes. The Lightning convert on the power play at a staggering 30% rate, the highest in the league.

Buffalo Sabres

Friday, 7:30 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Florida Panthers at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The return of Jeff Skinner to PNC Arena will take place on Friday night as the Buffalo Sabres and the Hurricanes get together for the first of three meetings. After pushing out to a very impressive 17-6-2 start, the Sabres have sputtered a bit since November 27th, turning in a 5-8-4 record since then to fall into a tie for the wild card spots with the Islanders at 50 points. Despite the recent struggles, the Sabres are poised to potentially end the eight-year postseason drought in Buffalo.

While the acquisition of Skinner is certainly the biggest move for the Sabres, due mostly to the spectacular 28 goals scored thus far by Skinner, the number one pick of the 2018 NHL draft, Rasmus Dahlin, has also been a boon to a team that struggled in keeping the puck out of their own net at times in the past. Those two, combined with the new goalie tandem of Carter Hutton (.917 save percentage) and Linus Ullmark (.924 save percentage in 15 games) have changed the dynamics of the roster.

A potentially key development currently is the current upper body ailment for captain and team points leader Jack Eichel. It is unknown if he will be re-entering the lineup this week, but in his absence, the effectiveness of Skinner could be somewhat minimized as the caliber of his linemates downgrades. Despite the great seasons from Eichel and Skinner, the Sabres have also received major contributions from Sam Reinhart (40 points) and from Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen on the blueline.

The one area that is of concern is the depth in scoring. A powerful top line has carried the scoring, but the Sabres sit at 21st in the league in goals because they have not been able to get consistent secondary scoring. For the Sabres to remain in contention, either improvement or acquisition of scoring depth is a key need. Unless they address that issue, they may very well remain out in the bitter Western New York cold come playoff time.

What to Watch For

  • What will the crowd reaction be towards Skinner? And will he come back to haunt the Canes on Friday?
  • With the Canes in the back end of a back-to-back and the Sabres at the front end of one, what will the goalie matchup look like?

Nashville Predators

Sunday, 12:30 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Nashville Predators at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

The Nashville Predators will head to Raleigh for their only trip of the season on Sunday for a matinee. With a bit of a banged up roster currently (Filip Forsberg, Colton Sissons and Kyle Turris are nursing ailments), the Preds have hit a bit of a rough patch in the past month as they cling to playoff position in the Central Division.

The key to success in the Music City this season has been solid scoring depth with moderate threats throughout the lineup, supplemented with a first class defensive core (Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Matthias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis) and solid goaltending from Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros. Currently second in goals against and 12th in goals for, the recipe for success has followed the path blazed by last season’s President’s Trophy-winning squad.

The Predators’ attack, which has been dragged down to 12th in total goals from seven just a season ago, would expect to see some improvement that could put them in line with last year on the power play. Despite earning the man advantage at the second-highest rate in the NHL (10.2 opponent penalty minutes per game), the Preds have only converted at a 14.58% rate, good for 28th in the league. Compare that to 21.17% a season ago, and there is plenty of room for some regression to the mean for the Preds attack, if they continue to provide themselves with the power play opportunities at such a high rate.

For Carolina to have a chance at the two points on Sunday, they must convert the scoring opportunities they receive because the numbers indicate they may be fewer and further between against this tremendous defensive unit.

What to Watch For

  • Carolina has utilized a significant shuttle between Raleigh and Charlotte this season. If Jordan Staal cannot return this week from his concussion, will the Canes seek fresher legs for a matinee that will be the third game in four days for the team?
  • Both teams have defensemen that can activate offensively. Look for shots and opportunities for the D to join the rush. Which team will get the added offensive punch from the blueline that will make the difference?