Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. at Scotiabank Arena
The Carolina Hurricanes embark on their most critical week of hockey since the final week of the 2011 season which saw them come up just short of a playoff spot in the season’s final game. They will begin their three-game odyssey with a trip to Toronto to take on the playoff-bound Maple Leafs. Toronto officially clinched their playoff spot on Monday night with a tight 2-1 victory over the Islanders. For Carolina, they must hope that the Leafs experience similar weariness to what the Canes displayed on Sunday in a back to back versus a more rested team.
The Leafs are set to close down the season with a top three offense and a middle of the pack defensive game, as they currently sit 17th in goals against. Most of the onus in net has been on Frederik Andersen, who has delivered a very good season in 58 starts, posting a .918 save percentage and a decent 2.75 goals against average. Playing on a back to back, and having just clinched a playoff spot an evening ago, it is reasonable that Mike Babcock has elected to send Garret Sparks between the pipes tonight, even with the Leafs mathematically able to catch the Bruins for the two-seed in the Atlantic Division.
Sparks has had a predictably tougher road in his 16 starts (19 appearances), posting a .901 save percentage and a very mediocre 8-8-1 record on the season, including losing five of his past six starts since February 10th. The Canes’ job will be to pepper him with pucks and make him uncomfortable early.
Offensively, everyone is aware of how dangerous the Leafs have become. Mitch Marner leads the Leafs with 92 points on the season, but their leading goal scorers are the elite duo of John Tavares (46 goals) and Auston Matthews (37 goals). Throw in the supreme leap made offensively by defenseman Morgan Rielly (71 points), and you have a team that has scoring from a number of quality lines and from the blue line as well. Controlling the offensive punch of the Leafs will not be easy, but slowing them down in the neutral zone will be key in breaking up the offensive waves that they are capable of generating.
At the end of the day, it is unclear what the motivation and effort level will be for the Leafs after clinching last night. But for Carolina, none of that can matter. The Canes must come out and play one of the sharper 60 minutes of hockey that they are capable of icing to put themselves in position over the final two contests against non-playoff contenders. A solid effort and two points on Tuesday would be a very big step towards the giant leap forward that this Canes team is hoping to take this week.
What to Watch For
- I am interested in the lineups being released later today. First off, expect Haydn Fleury inserted for Calvin de Haan for Carolina. For Toronto, we know about Sparks in net, but will any other veterans get a back to back off late in this season? Patrick Marleau perhaps?
- The second thing to watch is the scoreboard. The Canadiens are hosting the Lightning at 7:30 p.m., and the Blue Jackets are hosting the Bruins at 7:00 p.m. The Canes can obviously take care of their own business with three straight wins, but a little help wouldn’t hurt.
Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena
The home finale at PNC Arena will surely be an emotional rollercoaster with the way that this team has been able to connect so directly with the fans. With so much on the line in terms of a possible playoff spot, the rekindling of a love affair between a team and it’s fans will rightly take a back seat to the important matters at hand.
But make no mistake, Thursday night is a night of celebration. The Canes and their fans have waited long and hard for the kind of meaningful game like they will all experience on Thursday. No matter the opponent, Thursday is far more about the kind of effort, execution and excitement that Canes fans, and the players, have come to expect.
As for the actual opponent, the New Jersey Devils are limping their way to the finish line this season, positioned in last place in the Metro Division, going 5-10-2 over their last 17 games. Injuries have ravaged the Devils, as they will be without Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, and could be without their top point-scorer in his absence in Kyle Palmieri (50 points). Additionally, top defenseman Sami Vatanen has missed four straight games due to illness and is unclear for Thursday in Raleigh as well.
Potentially without so much firepower, the Devils would seem to be ripe for the kill. But a wounded team such as this can sometimes be the most dangerous team in the role of spoiler. While their isn’t much to focus on in terms of what New Jersey will bring to the ice, the focus for the Canes must remain on the consistency in which they approach the final regular season 60 minutes on home ice. If Carolina plays a game of conviction and discipline, the Devils will not be able to counter.
The hope would obviously be for the Canes to have the ability to clinch a playoff spot on Thursday night in front of their home fans, in what would be seen as a culmination of a long journey deep in the NHL wilderness and back to relevancy all in a tidy, decade-long circle. But for the players and coaches on the home bench, it has to be a shift by shift focus on the task at hand. If they can maintain that level of detail and attention, they will like the result on Thursday.
What to Watch For
- The Devils have been switching in net between the oft-injured veteran Cory Schneider and 22-year-old rookie Mackenzie Blackwood. In 22 games, Blackwood has been stellar with a .917 save percentage, and he won on Monday against the Rangers. Who will the Canes see on Thursday?
- Expect a packed house and hopefully one of the more electric atmospheres within PNC Arena. There is often a fine line between a nervous, anxiety-riddled audience, and a jubilant crowd. But look for a more positive vibe in what could be the final home contest of the season.
- Once again, scoreboard watching is in order, with the Canadiens visiting the Capitals (who can clinch the Metro on Thursday with a win) at 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at Wells Fargo Center
The 2018-19 NHL season officially closes on Saturday, with the Hurricanes visiting the Philadelphia Flyers. The Canes were able to dispatch of the Flyers on home ice on Saturday, and you can take a look at last week’s breakdown for more about the Flyers roster.
In a perfect world, the Canes would have everything clinched and put away, at least in terms of a playoff spot, well before they even board the plane to Philly. In a perfect world, they would even clinch a high enough seed to avoid the Lightning in the first round. But in reality, Saturday in Philly is likely to mean a whole lot to the Canes as they either seek to earn a playoff spot or improve their seeding within the tournament.
If the season does end up coming down to a one game scenario in Philly, the Canes will be looking for a season sweep of the Flyers for the first time since 2013-14. With both the Canadiens and Blue Jackets in action at the same time (Montreal hosts Toronto, Columbus visits Ottawa), everything could still be in play as each team enters game 82. If the Canes are to pull off the sweep, they will need to continue the explosive offense that they have displayed against the Flyers all season. Notching 13 goals over three games, the Canes have come away with multi-goal victories in each meeting.
As the season comes to a close, it is obvious that the Canes desperately want to bust the playoff drought that has plagued them for a decade. But it perhaps even more important that this team, full of a pleasant cast of characters and personality has brought back so much of the enthusiasm to Hurricanes hockey and has given both the hardcore hockey fan and the casual observer in the Triangle something to take notice of. Hopefully there are additional chapters to write in this season’s tale. If not, everyone should be anxiously awaiting next year’s new release.
What to Watch For
- Sebastian Aho simply must get going over the final three games of the season for Carolina to reach the Promised Land. His current 11-game goal drought is his longest of the season. Can he get rolling again?
- We can all hope and pray that this does not come into play for Carolina, but there could be a scenario where a Regulation or Overtime Win (ROW), which is the first tiebreaker, becomes a major factor for the Canes (or the other contenders). It is possible that a team could be in a situation to actually pull their goalie at some point in the three-on-three Overtime (risking forfeiting the one point) in hopes of notching a winning tally in OT. Wouldn’t that be something to see?