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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Penguins, Lightning, Wild, and Canadiens

The Canes are entering crunch time with an enormous four-game week that could make their playoff position secure - or make it even more wobbly.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Penguins

Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins have begun to make their playoff push, having tallied points in nine of their past eleven games, despite a rash of injuries that are beginning to set in that has chipped away at the top end players on the roster. Towards the end of February, Kris Letang went down with an upper body injury, and just last night Evgeni Malkin was helped off with an upper body injury that is said to have him “week-to-week” going forward. As two of the main cogs in the Penguins machine, will their loss be felt immediately for the Pens?

Perhaps the best sign of late has been the steady play of Matt Murray back in net. In his last 18 games (since January 30th), Murray has posted a 10-5-3 record with a .925 save percentage. This consistent effort has provided the stability needed for the high-octane Pens offense to take charge. While Pittsburgh is squarely in the middle of the pack in goals against (16th), that is solid enough when compared to their top-five offense. The Pens offense is led once again by Sidney Crosby, who has thrown up yet another incredible season with 92 points in 70 games to date. His next closest teammate in points is Phil Kessel with 73 points. With Crosby, Kessel, the injured Malkin, and young Jake Guentzel (68 points), the Pens have a top-heavy offense that is without two of its five main contributors with Malkin and Letang shelved.

As the Canes seek to leap past the Pens down the stretch in the Metro, potentially having the ability to key on certain players and lines could have a positive effect, however “keying on” and “stopping” players such as Crosby, Kessel, and Guentzel is easier said than done. In order for the Canes to have a serious chance to overtake the Penguins, they will need a win on Tuesday. If not, opportunity to secure a playoff spot will still present itself, but the road could get more difficult.

What to Watch For

  • How will Rod Brind’Amour use his last change advantage to attempt to slow Crosby & company? Will the assignment fall most often to Jordan Staal and his linemates? How about the defensive pairing they run up against most?
  • Not necessarily an on-ice observation, but I am interested to see the turnout and the allegiance of the fans in the arena on Tuesday. The Canes are in the thick of a playoff race, and are nipping on the Pens heels. Will PNC be packed? Will the heavy majority actually be rooting for the Canes? It will be interesting to see.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Quite simply, the Tampa Bay Lightning are putting together one of the most impressive NHL seasons in the modern era. Sitting comfortably at 55-13-4, the Lightning have already wrapped up a playoff spot, and will very shortly secure the Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference Regular Season, as well as the President’s Trophy for the best record in the NHL. Despite their position well ahead of the entire league, the Lightning continue to put the hammer down, having won four straight and 16 of their last 18. Needless to say, any hope of beating the heavy favorite in the Eastern Conference rests on playing a complete, well-rounded game over all 200 feet of ice.

On a team as good and as deep as the Lightning, the collective talent certainly is the most decisive factor in the success, but in Tampa the unquestioned leader for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP is their offensive leader, Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov has amassed 117 points in 72 games, outpacing his closest teammate by 30 points. Throw in an eye-popping 11 players with greater than 30 points already, and what you have is a team that not only has a dynamic top-line and powerplay, but also depth in scoring and skill. Add to that a likely Vezina Trophy finalist in Andrei Vasilevskiy (.929 save percentage, 2.28 goals against), and you get the makings of a team that still has an outside shot of catching the Montreal Canadiens record of 132 points in an NHL season from 1976-77.

The playoffs will certainly be the test that this team is ultimately judged on, but perhaps the thing that makes them so dangerous is not one particular facet of their team (offense, defense, goal-tending), but rather their other-worldly ability to transition from one to another. No team in the NHL flips the ice faster from defense to offense than the Lightning. While they are certainly skilled and dangerous when controlling possession in the offensive zone, they are truly most dangerous when breaking out after a turnover in their defensive end or especially in the neutral zone.

For the Canes to compete, they must be sharp in their decision-making. Typically a team that pinches in the offensive zone aggressively, the Canes blueliners must be sure they can keep the puck in when pinching, or a boatload of odd-man chances may be headed towards their own net all evening. If both teams bring their A-game, Thursday could potentially be one of the more exciting games of the year as two aggressive and talented teams come together as the juices of the playoff push continue to flow. A win over the Bolts would certainly feel like a bit of a steal, just given how historically great they have been on the season. We will see if they are up to the challenge.

What to Watch For

  • Again, the transition from defense to offense from Tampa is typically breathtaking. Check that out.
  • The Tampa power play is a clear top unit in the league at 28.5% on the year. Staying out of the box is supremely important for Carolina to have any chance at winning the special teams battle or the game.

Minnesota Wild

Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: New York Rangers at Minnesota Wild Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The Hurricanes will enter the weekend with a pivotal back-to-back to close out their current five-game homestand against two opponents on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. First, they will entertain the Minnesota Wild who enter this week just one point behind the Arizona Coyotes for the last wild card spot in the jumbled Western Conference playoff picture.

The Wild come to town for the first meeting between Minnesota and Carolina since the Victor Rask for Nino Niederreiter swap that has proved so momentous for the Canes. Since joining the Wild, Rask has tallied two points (one goal, one assist) in 14 games played. Niederreiter, on the other hand, has given the Canes a massive lift with 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in his 25 games in Raleigh. No doubt this topic will be discussed by many as these teams come together again, but it is hard to stress how important Niederreiter has been to the Canes’ drive for their first playoff spot in a decade.

The Wild have stumbled of late, going 1-3-1 in their past five games to fall out of playoff position, but despite a tough schedule down the stretch, the Wild will have a their chance head-to-head against the Coyotes in Arizona on March 31st to make a big impact on the race. Interestingly, the Wild will enter Raleigh on the back end of a back-to-back as they take on the Capitals in Washington on Friday night. Carolina will be on the first of their own back-to-back, so they must look to take advantage of a slightly older team that may be a bit more effected by the heavy legs than most.

In terms of their structure, it will be interesting to see if Bruce Boudreau is willing to use Devan Dubnyk on back-to-back nights as his team scraps for every point it can get. Dubnyk has been the clear number one netminder, posting a .911 save percentage in 59 starts (60 games played) to date, the most in the entire league. Meanwhile, Alex Stalock has been less than stellar in his 14 starts, accruing an .893 save percentage and a 6-6-3 record overall. Offensively, the Wild are led by a balanced attack that is spearheaded by a trio of 34-year-old stalwarts in Zach Parise (57 points) and Eric Staal (49 points) up front, and Ryan Suter (45 points) on the blueline.

While the Wild are certainly clawing for every point they can get, this is a game that Carolina needs to take advantage of in what is sure to be a challenging week at home. Winning a game where so many factors are in your advantage is the most simple way to tighten your hold on a playoff spot.

What to Watch For

  • While Rask is uncertain to play, the response to him by the fans if he does suit up will be interesting to see/hear.
  • As mentioned, who starts in net for the Wild will be noteworthy. Check out who plays in D.C. on Friday to get an idea of what Boudreau’s decision-making may have to be leading into Saturday.

Montreal Canadiens

Sunday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most critical game of the week and this current homestand rests at the end. The Montreal Canadiens, the closest team on the outside looking in as the week begins (four points behind Carolina, Carolina with one game in hand) comes to PNC Arena in what very likely will be a must-win situation. The Canes, well-chronicled to be searching for their first foray into the postseason since 2009, can do themselves a gigantic favor simply by taking advantage of the opportunity to claim two points at the Canadiens’ expense on home ice.

The Canadiens have been leaking oil of late, having dropped five of their last seven games while falling out of playoff position. The Habs feature a similar four-game week to the Canes, playing on all of the same nights, highlighted by a matchup against the Islanders on Thursday and the crucial game against Carolina on Sunday. The heaviest burden would appear to rest on the shoulders of goalie Carey Price, as Price has been tasked with carrying the load in net for the Habs, perhaps all the way to the finish line. Antti Niemi has started just once in March (a particularly poor showing in San Jose on March 7th), and has played just 17 games all season. With Saturday-Sunday set up as the final back-to-back for the Habs, expecatations are that Price will draw into the lineup for both games as Montreal clings to life in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

Offensively, the Habs have slowed a bit, falling to 17th overall on the year. Still led by Max Domi (62 points), Tomas Tatar (50 points), and Jonathan Drouin (50 points), Montreal has scored only 12 goals in their previous seven games, which as contributed to their most recent poor stretch. Despite being owners of the worst power play in the league for the season (11.9%), the Habs do have one of the league’s most dangerous weapons on that unit as Shea Weber brings his heavy shot into play. Understanding his ability and the danger he can cause will be important if Carolina is to keep the Habs man-advantage silent.

While each game as the season barrels to a close is precious, the importance of Sunday’s tilt is undeniable. A clean regulation win, coupled with a reasonable week leading to it, should put the Canes is prime position with seven games remaining after the week concludes. These are the games that Canes fans have wanted to have played over the last decade, and for one week a playoff preview resides squarely in Raleigh, North Carolina.

What to Watch For

  • Again, expect to see Carey Price in for the Habs as they cannot afford the same rotating luxury that the Hurricanes possess.
  • Victor Mete has come on in recent weeks to begin showcasing his speed and athleticism from the blueline. The 20-year-old left shot defenseman has yet to tally an NHL goal 110 games over the past two years, but has begun to create offensive chances for the Canadiens over the past few weeks, even while their offense as a whole has been sluggish. Keep an eye on him.