Wednesday, 7:00 p.m. at Madison Square Garden
Since the Hurricanes last met up with the New York Rangers, in which Henrik Lundqvist reasserted his dominance over the Canes, the Rangers have continued their spotty play that has plagued them most of the season. On one night, they will stymie the Metro-leading Washington Capitals in a 4-1 win, and then two nights later have no answers for the lowly Ottawa Senators in a 4-1 defeat.
This inconsistency is what has prevented them from truly throwing themselves into the mix in what will surely be a tightly contested wild card race, but with mixed expectations headed into the season, the results are probably on par with what many expected.
Artemi Panarin has fit in wonderfully in the Big Apple, tallying 30 points in just 22 contests to date. His efforts, along with Ryan Strome (22 points), have carried the Rangers offense as they hover around the middle of the league in goals scored. In order to jump into the upper third of the league, they will need Mika Zbanejad to return healthy and effective as he finishing healing from injury.
They will also need more development of secondary scoring, which very well could come from the young potential phenom Kaapo Kakko. The 18-year-old has put together an uneven start to his NHL career with 10 points (six goals, four assists) in 20 games. His electric ability has flashed at times, similar to Andrei Svechnikov early last season, but has not truly revealed itself. His minus-13 rating indicates that he still has work to do in terms of playing a two-way game, but in general the hope is that he develops into a long-term running mate for Panarin to feed off of.
In net, the ageless Lundqvist continues to churn out solid play. While his heroics against the Canes are not the norm at this point in his career, he has proven that he is still a solid backstop that can carry a team on a given night if needed.
For Carolina to come away with a win they need to get on the scoreboard first. Their struggles to score on Lundqvist are well-documented, and playing from behind would only make the pressure to tally more palpable. The Canes just have to continue to produce good chances, as they have done against the Rangers in the past, and hope that they are able to squeak a few past early to get off and running.
Friday, 7:30 p.m. at PNC Arena
The Nashville Predators will arrive at PNC Arena on Black Friday in an unusual spot for them. They are currently chasing their rivals in the Central Division for the first time in several seasons due to a stretch of poor hockey recently that saw them lose eight of nine contests and fall from near the top of the division to fifth. They have since steadied themselves with two crucial victories, but that struggle is something they will now be unable to afford at any other juncture of the season. They have officially used their “mulligan.”
For Peter Laviolette’s squad, the issue has been keeping the puck out of their own net. The nine game stretch of poor play featured five games in which their opponent scored five goals or more. Obviously, that sort of work is not a recipe for success, and it is also indicative of a team-wide issue, not one that is simply a concern of goaltending. Penalty killing, in particular, has been a massive issue. At dead last in the league (72%), the Preds have been punished consistently when in the box.
That being said, the struggles of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros have been a major area of concern in the Music City. Both sport a hefty 3.06 goals against average, while also maintaining save percentages that are sub-.895. Rinne, who is the same age as Lundqvist with the Rangers, has been mentioned as someone who may be finally aging out of his ability to be a leading backstop. But despite possessing what they believed to be a vaunted blue line, one that could afford losing P.K. Subban, the Preds find themselves struggling to minimize good chances in their defensive zone.
Offensively, the Preds have kept themselves afloat with a top-six offensive team. In a lineup that is filled with scoring depth, Roman Josi leads the team in points (22 points) as a defenseman. With 11 players in double digits in points, the Preds certainly provide a consistent offensive rush from all four lines that are capable of scoring. The acquisition of Matt Duchene has worked out fine to date, even if he has not elevated his production as of yet. The Preds certainly hope to have a top group of forwards emerge with Duchene, Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen, as well as a host of others all with prior track records of prolific point totals.
For Carolina to beat the Preds, they will need to take advantage if they are given a man advantage. The Preds kill has been an absolute liability, so winning the special teams battle would provide a significant leg up in the efforts to upend the visitors. If the Canes can draw some penalties, they should be able to produce good chances.
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at Amalie Arena
Perhaps no team in the NHL has disappointed more through the first quarter of the NHL season than the Tampa Bay Lightning, which is saying something as the Toronto Maple Leafs have already fired Mike Babcock. Following an incredible season a year ago that ended in utter disaster in the playoff sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Lightning only appeared to get better. With Kevin Shattenkirk on board, they appeared to have another high-end piece for Jon Cooper to turn to in order to stack the prolific goal totals up on a nightly basis.
Instead of picking up where they left off at the end of the regular season, though, they have picked up moreso with the uneven play they exhibited in the postseason. While they currently sit at 26 points, which is well within contention for a playoff spot albeit on the outside looking in currently, their play has been either stellar or puzzling, depending on the night. Currently, they are riding a nice three-game winning streak that has seen them pour in 15 goals in three games, reminiscent of the juggernaut from a season ago.
With no serious injuries to deal with at this time (Steven Stamkos is currently dealing with a nagging upper body injury, but the rest of roster is relatively healthy), the expectation is that the Lightning may be on the verge of ripping off their best hockey of the year to vault right back into the discussion at the top of the Atlantic Division. Stamkos, as well as Nikita Kucherov (last season’s Hart Trophy recipient) and Viktor Hedman have put together solid point-per-game numbers to date, which are terrific, but far off the blistering pace they set for themselves last year. If the Bolts are going to rampage back through the Atlantic, expect that triumvirate to kick into another gear.
If the Canes are to go into Tampa on the back end of a back-to-back and compete, they will have to play disciplined and structured hockey, similar to the defensive effort they put together the final two periods in Detroit on Sunday evening. Tampa will also be finishing a back-to-back, but with more tired legs comes the worry of making lazier and softer plays. If Carolina can use what is left in their legs, avoid unnecessary penalties, and generate some chances against a team that can fall in love with generating chances on the rush, they will have an opportunity to cap off the holiday week in grand style.