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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Penguins, Sabres, Rangers and Devils

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A momentous five-game road trip will determine if the Canes are a postseason threat.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Penguins

Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins have one again positioned themselves for a playoff run, as they have for each of the previous 12 seasons. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel form the now familiar trio that has powered the Pens to another top-five offensive output and have them keeping pace near the top of the Metropolitan Division standings.

This past week, with Malkin on the mend from a lower body injury (no word on if he will be ready to play Tuesday), the Penguins pulled the trigger on a trade that shipped the disappointing Derick Brassard (who only managed 15 points in 40 games) and Riley Sheahan to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Nick Bjugstad and defenseman Jared McCann. Bjugstad, while never a prolific scorer (he has two 40+ point seasons in seven years) has been a consistent presence in Florida when healthy. The idea is that the bigger body in place of the floundering Brassard will be much tougher to play against and provide some of the toughness that the Penguins have had to divest themselves of as cap restrictions have forced tough roster decisions in recent years.

If the Pens are to make another deep playoff run, however, they will need Matt Murray to remain healthy and show that he is the same player who led the Pens to back-to-back Stanley Cups just a few short years ago. In sharing time with Casey DeSmith most of the season, Murray has been outperformed. While a .910 save percentage is not terrible, he inconsistency has caused Mike Sullivan to lose confidence in his netminder, and has raised into question if Murray is the true long-term solution in the Steel City.

As the main core for the Penguins continues to age (Crosby, 31 - Kessel, 31 - Malkin, 32 - Letang, 31), expect GM Jim Rutherford to empty the system in an effort to take advantage of the final remaining prime seasons of his core roster. The Pens will be as active as they can with their current cap situation at the trade deadline, so don’t expect the Bjugstad move to be the final shuffling of the cards as the Pens attempt to maintain their hold on a Metro Division playoff spot.

What to Watch For

  • Both Malkin, who has missed a few games with a lower body injury and defenseman Justin Schultz, who has been out all season with a leg fracture could potentially return on Tuesday. Keep an eye out for them.
  • While the big three performers for the Pens remain their leaders, Jake Guentzel has actually become their top goal-scorer with 26 on the season. Keep an eye out for the dynamic Guentzel, who has slotted in with Crosby with a recent line shuffling with Malkin out.

Buffalo Sabres

Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at KeyBank Center

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The Sabres have cooled off dramatically over the past six weeks, posting a 5-11-1 record since December 18th and falling from a comfortable position in the Atlantic Division standings to fifth and on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. Much of that downfall has been a result of a porous defense that has yielded four or more goals eight different times over that recent 17 game stretch.

Interestingly, when you look at the statistics for the Sabres, there is no particular weak link in the defensive structure that would appear to jump out as the problem to solve. Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark have combined for a productive pairing in net with a .911 save percentage and 2.87 goals against. Defensively, the Sabres have allowed the 11th most shots on goal, but that rates better than several current playoff contenders. Their penalty kill has produced at a top-10 rate (82.1% kill rate).

The offense, which has been below average over the course of the season has continued to falter and now rests at 23rd in the league, as the Sabres have actually been outscored by eight goals on the season. The bulk of the offensive burden has been placed on Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and of course, former-Cane Jeff Skinner. Each of those three have produced over 40 points to date, and Skinner has potted 31 goals, which is tied for second in the NHL. It appears as though the level of performance may have leveled off for the Sabres as they won a number of close contests in the early going, and now those same games have broken the other way.

For the Hurricanes, Thursday’s matchup in Buffalo carries significant weight as the Canes and Sabres sit tied at 56 points in the chase for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Garnering two points, and doing so in regulation, would be a big piece in what must be billed as a massive road trip for their playoff hopes. If Carolina can stifle the top line of the Sabres, there will be an excellent opportunity to get a leg up on an Eastern Conference rival.

What to Watch For

  • The Canes continually have been burned by ex-mates over the course of the season. Skinner tallied in the Sabres’ trip to PNC Arena earlier this season, and the three ex-Canes on the Flames all scored on Sunday to deal a loss to Carolina at home. Can the Canes contain Skinner?
  • Carter Hutton has been battling an undisclosed illness this week, and his status as the week moves forward is unclear. Keep an eye on who is in net for the Sabres.

New York Rangers

Friday, 8 p.m. at Madison Square Garden

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

Look, there is no easy way around it. The Canes enter Madison Square Garden on a 16-game losing streak at Madison Square Garden. They rolled into MSG a few short weeks ago seeking to end that misery, and were steamrolled 6-2. If you would like to see more about the Rangers as a team, check out the write-up from just a few weeks ago.

For Friday night, the Canes simply must put together a better all-around effort than they have in New York. In the 16-game streak, which dates back to 2011, the Canes have given up four or more goals in 10 of the 16 contests. No team can withstand that level of defensive ineptitude and win on a consistent basis. The first order of business will be to contain the Rangers and perhaps jump out to an early lead for a change.

Matters are further complicated for the Canes on Friday because they will be in the second of a back-to-back, while the Rangers will be fresh following a Wednesday night home tilt with the Bruins. A strong start will be imperative to withstand what is likely to be stronger legs late from the Rangers.

While the deck may be stacked against the Canes for Friday, perhaps this can be viewed as an opportunity. If the Canes are able to crack the MSG code, the confidence that would ensue could be contagious. This game, as with the important road trip as a whole, must be viewed as a tremendous opportunity to not only help the team in the standings, but to create the confidence and momentum that could propel them into a playoff position.

What to Watch For

  • Mika Zibanejad is riding a hot streak into the week. Zibanejad tallied six points, including a hat trick against the Devils, over his past two contests. Containing the Rangers’ offensive leader will be key for Carolina.
  • Winning the special teams battle is a big factor. The Rangers remain potent on the power play as they have produced at a 21.2% rate (12th), but their penalty kill has been substandard at 76.7% (25th). Can Carolina play even or better?
  • Who will see the net for the Canes? Curtis McElhinney is healthy again, but struggled mightily in MSG in January. We should have a good idea based on who plays in Buffalo on Thursday.

New Jersey Devils

Sunday, 3:00 p.m. at Prudential Center

NHL: Ottawa Senators at New Jersey Devils Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Devils were a surprise playoff team a season ago as they rode a Hart Trophy campaign from Taylor Hall into a wildcard berth. This season has gone far worse than planned, as Hall remains on Injured Reserve with a lower body injury and the list of impactful Devils on the mend only grows from there. Veterans Travis Zajac, Ben Lovejoy, and Sami Vatanen are all out with various injuries. Zajac and Lovejoy should return soon. Lastly, the other major injury is four-time All Star goalie Cory Schneider. Schneider has been sidelined with an abdominal issues since prior to Christmas, but is expected to be back sometime this week.

In the absence of such talent and leadership, the Devils have fallen to four games below NHL .500, and sit in the Metropolitan Division basement. Backup goalie Keith Kinkaid (who has given the Canes fits at times in the past) has been over-exposed and faltered to a .898 save percentage and 3.12 goals against. With just a mediocre offense (16th in goals) and a well below average defensive structure (26th in goals against), the Devils are likely to look at moves which they can make that will strengthen the roster around Hall going forward. Having a 27-year-old MVP and a 20-year-old former first overall draft pick (Nico Hischier) to build around is a pretty good start. Now New Jersey must determine how to best do that going forward.

Pieces such as Marcus Johansson may be available at the deadline for contenders, but Johansson’s quiet season (20 points in 39 games) may depress his return. Brian Boyle is a veteran presence that has been through the playoff wars, but at 34, likely would only bring a late pick. Perhaps the only thing the Devils can do is play out the rest of this season, and hope that fate looks upon them more kindly next season as they attempt to vault back into the postseason conversation. Until then, games like this on Sunday against a battered and bruised opponent are the kind of games where a hungry team fighting for a playoff spot must take control of the action and score a decisive victory. No matter the results that lead to Sunday’s tilt, finishing off the challenging week with a victory in Newark is a near must for the Canes in order for them to achieve their goals.

What to Watch For

  • The tables will turn for the Canes on Sunday as they will be the relatively fresher team as the Devils will be coming off of a Saturday afternoon matinee against the Wild. All the more reason to take advantage of an ailing roster.
  • With Hall out, All-Star Kyle Palmieri becomes the clear focal point for the Devils attack. Can the Canes keep Palmieri off the scoresheet, as they did in each of the previous two meetings earlier this season?