Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. at Wells Fargo Center
After steadying themselves a bit following a slow start, the Philadelphia Flyers currently sit right in the mix of what should be a season-long battle for the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Their biggest offseason acquisition, Kevin Hayes, has yet to find solid footing in Philly (seven points in 13 games). And perhaps most crucially, their 21-year-old netminder, Carter Hart, has faced real adversity for the first true time in his pro career with a .867 save percentage in 8 appearances. Hart has split time with Brian Elliott, which likely was not the plan as the season began.
The most significant positive for the Flyers in the early going has to be the breakout of Travis Konecny. The 22-year-old center has gotten off to a blistering start (14 points in 13 games), and is on an early pace to nearly double his highest season output in his fourth full NHL season. With Konecny developing into what appears to be true first line talent, it will allow the Flyers to be one of the more formidable teams up the middle of the ice with captain Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier also manning the center position.
Despite his struggles, the Flyers obviously remain committed to Hart as their goalie of the future. His terrific debut at age 20 in 30 starts a season ago confirmed what many had said regarding the young goalie and seemed to solidify that position for the Flyers for years to come. His struggles this season are in a small eight-game sample, but his last appearance featured a win over the Devils, which included some crucial stops by Hart in the shootout win.
For Carolina to go into Philly and bring home a win, they have to clean up the loose play that lately has allowed them to give up too many high-end chances. If the Canes can do that, their talent is good enough to win most any game.
Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
The New York Rangers will enter play on Thursday night in what will be their third game in four days (including Thursday being the second of a back-to-back). Simply put, the Hurricanes could be seeing a team that is running low on fuel. The lack of depth for the Rangers could be tested even further if Mika Zibanejad cannot return from his current neck ailment.
Despite being seen by many as a rebuilding group for 2019-20, the Rangers were active in free agency this offseason as they brought in talented scorer Artemi Panarin from Columbus, and then made a trade with the Winnipeg Jets to acquire Jacob Trouba. The Rangers also opened up their wallets for former Canes legend Greg McKegg. Even so, the Rangers continue to be seen as a team that is a few developed pieces away from being a postseason contender in the rugged Metropolitan Division.
As for the early portion of this season, the Rangers’ biggest issue to date has been consistent goal scoring. During a five game losing streak early in October, the Rangers did not manage more than two goals in any of the contests. They have scored four goals or more in all but one of their victories. While Henrik Lundqvist is sharing time with Alexandar Georgiev now, the play in net has remained solid. If the Rangers can find a way to get scoring from more than just a few sources, they may be capable of surprising more than a few people by playing truly competitive hockey all season.
The Canes’ schedule helps them out here in theory, facing a team that lacks depth and may be fatigued. If the Canes bring a solid effort and can keep themselves in five-on-five action against what should be a weary opponent, they should have a good chance at victory.
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at Canadian Tire Centre
A 3-8-1 start is basically in line with what most of the experts expected from the Ottawa Senators to begin the season. Nestled in the basement of the entire NHL with just seven points on the year, the Sens are in the depths of what is likely a multi-year rebuild. They are attempting to put together a team around Brady Tkachuk, the 20-year-old who burst on the scene last year with 45 points as a teenager. While veterans such as Bobby Ryan, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Artem Anisimov, among others, litter the roster, the effort that is being put in place hopes to eventually build a winning team around Tkachuk and talented defenseman Thomas Chabot.
As you might imagine, scoring has been an issue for the Sens. Connor Brown leads Ottawa in points with 11, but has done so with only two goals on the season. Chabot, the terrific offensive blueliner, is the second highest scorer, but again only has one goal to his name. Perhaps most alarming of all is the anemic power play that the Senators have employed to date. Sitting at just a 4.76% conversion rate on the man advantage (2-for-42), the Sens are off to a historically terrible start on the power play. It’s little wonder they currently sit tied for dead last in goals scored, alongside the similarly woebegone Blackhawks.
Saturday night represents the first of a somewhat unique back-to-back between the Sens and Canes, which features an off day on Sunday before the two teams reconvene in Raleigh next Monday. It is not a secret that back-to-back games against the worst team in the league is an opportunity that should not be missed by a true contender. Taking care of business in games such as these, as well as Thursday’ tilt with the Rangers, are the difference between teams that are in playoff contention and teams that end up comfortably in a playoff spot come late March. If the Hurricanes can play anything resembling their best hockey in Ottawa, their talent should win the day.
The Senators may one day put together another playoff-caliber roster. But until then, it is incumbent on contending teams to pack on points while they can against the weakling of the Eastern Conference. Saturday, and really this entire coming week, will be as much a test of the Canes’ focus as it is of their hockey skill.