Friday, 7:00 p.m. at Madison Square Garden
The Hurricanes will return from the Christmas break with a pair of familiar divisional foes, beginning with their third matchup of the season against the New York Rangers. Take a look at the prior previews of the Rangers for a deeper look at the roster, but in terms of recent work, the Rangers have had a bit of a struggle of late in their attempts to keep up with the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division. Sitting currently in seventh place, the Rangers still have managed an above .500 NHL record at 17-15-4 (38 points), despite only one victory in their previous five contests.
Artemi Panarin has proven to be the top scoring threat the team hoped to acquire, as he far and away leads the Rangers with 20 goals and a team-high 45 points. While the Rangers aren’t the most potent team in the league (18th in goals), they are certainly dangerous on any given night, as the Canes have found out on two occasions already this season.
As they host the Canes for the second time on Friday, expect the ultimate Canes nemesis, Henrik Lundqvist, to be between the pipes for New York. He has put together a somewhat solid season (.910 save percentage, 3.12 goals against average) to date while splitting time with Alexandar Georgiev, but Canes fans know all too well that the numbers are meaningless when Lundqvist squares off the Carolina.
Expect goals to be difficult to come by as both teams return to the ice after a short break, as the Canes look to break out of their miniature two-game losing streak that led into the break. In the Metro Division, these sort of streaks must be snapped quickly, and the Canes know they must begin to take better care of division opponents if they wish to secure one of the three playoff berths available within the division. Expect an inspired effort, but will that be enough against a player and venue that has seemed to dominate the Canes?
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
The Washington Capitals will enter Saturday night’s matchup sporting the best record in the NHL, as they have jumped all over the entire league during their 26-7-5 first half. Leaders of the Metro, the Caps have received contributions from all of their familiar sources, but perhaps the biggest surprise has been the leap forward in production from top defenseman John Carlson. The team leader in points with 48, Carlson has amassed 35 assists and almost topped his career high with 13 goals in less than 40 games. At age 30, Carlson has become a true Norris Trophy candidate that has become not just a top supporting player, but a lead character in the Caps efforts.
The expected solid work has been received from Alex Ovechkin (36 points), Evgeny Kuznetsov (33 points), Jakub Vrana (31 points), Nicklas Backstrom (27 points), and T.J. Oshie (26 points). Tom Wilson also continues to chip in both offensively (26 points) and with his trademark “toughness” that has become the true hallmark of his game. With the league’s most potent offense receiving a depth in contribution that perhaps is even more than some of their most dynamic teams of the soon-to-be previous decade, the Caps are in position to be a difficult out in the spring.
Braden Holtby has been good enough so far, with a goals against under three (2.87) while playing in front of the league’s top scoring offense. His efforts continue to show that he is likely to be the main backstop that is capable of taking this team the distance. In order to run through four rounds in the postseason, he will likely need to elevate his play at that time, but for now he has been solid enough to be the backstop of the NHL’s best team.
The Canes know that they can topple the Caps. They did so last Spring. But controlling emotion on Saturday will be a big part of the game. Which team gets carried away, and likely spends some additional time in the penalty box on Saturday, may well determine the outcome. Emotion is good, but foolishness isn’t. Which team will do the best job of harnessing that emotion for good?