Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. at American Airlines Arena
The Hurricanes will look to end their four-game western conference trip in style on Tuesday night as they head to Dallas to take on the Stars. Currently in the third spot in the Central Division, the Stars appear primed for another postseason run behind the strength of their tremendous defensive efforts.
Currently just 25th in the NHL offensively, the Stars have had to rely heavily on Ben Bishop in net, along with his backup, former Cane Anton Khudobin. Bishop and Khudobin have nearly identical stats across the board and they have combined for a .925 save percentage and a paltry 2.36 goals against average. Bishop has done so with nearly twice as many starts as Khudobin, continuing to make his case as a potential Vezina trophy candidate.
The Stars have done all of this while working through a coaching change earlier in the season. Jim Montgomery was relieved of his duties in early December, replaced by veteran bench boss Rick Bowness. While the firing was not necessarily related to on-ice performance, the Stars have posted a solid 14-8-2 record under Bowness.
Nevertheless, despite their improved play, the Stars continue to struggle scoring at a consistent rate. They have only notched more than three goals in one of their previous 13 contests. In order for the Stars to be a threat in the Western Conference playoff picture, they will have to get a scoring bump either via trade or from improved play internally. Currently, Tyler Seguin leads the team with 40 total points. While captain Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov are still offensive leaders on the team as a whole, their number pale in comparison to what they have produced in previous seasons. In order for the Stars to become even an average offensive team, they will need vintage Benn and Radulov to augment the scoring.
For Carolina to get a win in Dallas, playing from ahead is a priority. The Stars are 18-4-2 when scoring first, and their defensive structure is such that they are able to stifle opponents in the neutral zone when given the ability to play from the lead. If the Canes can make the Stars stress to generate offense to keep up, they should be able to produce more chances against a high-end defensive group.
Friday, 7:30 p.m. at PNC Arena
The New Jersey Devils were primed for what they thought would be a bounce-back season. That resurgence never materialized, however, and the Devils now rest in the basement of the stacked Metropolitan Division, and look towards the trade deadline to try and improve their roster for the future, having already traded away their best asset by sending Taylor Hall to Arizona.
While a number of players are likely to be rumored, Sami Vatanen is a name that has come up in regards to Carolina, and the exciting defenseman was indeed pulled from playing on Saturday in the Devils victory over the Kings. Expect Vatanen and several others to be shipped out for what looks increasingly like a rebuilding team.
The issues for the Devils really have been all over the ice. An inability to score (24th in the NHL) has only been outdone by an inability to stop their opponents (30th in defense). Having used four different netminders thus far to the tune of an overall .894 save percentage, the Devils may be ready to officially move along from Cory Schneider who has been unable to remain healthy and effective after such a terrific early career in Jersey. MacKenzie Blackwood has appeared to take over the starting duties and has been the best of the group so far with a .910 save percentage in 35 starts.
Wayne Simmonds and P.K. Subban are among the bigger names added in the offseason to propel the Devils back into contention. Those names may now be pieces available on the trade market again, along with Vatanen and potentially leading point man Kyle Palmieri, who has a modified no-trade clause, but may want to move to a contender for the remaining year and a half of his deal. Whether he moves or not, expect the Devils to be active at the deadline.
If the Canes can put forth a solid effort at home on Valentine’s Day, there is no reason they shouldn’t be able to take two points off the bottom-feeder of their own division. But with the Canes at times recently providing less than stellar efforts, Rod Brind’Amour will surely be on guard for a let down following the road trip. The opponents’ roster could be shredded even more between now and Friday, so his coaching and focus will likely be more on his own team rather than anything in particular the Devils may try to execute.
Sunday, 4 p.m. at PNC Arena
While the Pacific Division remains possibly the weakest in the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers have so far taken advantage by jumping up to second-place in the division with 64 points. While the numbers indicate that they are the epitome of average currently (15th in offense and defense), that consistency has been enough in head coach Dave Tippett’s first season in Edmonton to make them real contenders. With Connor McDavid awaiting any team that matches up against the Oilers on a given night, they are a team that no one in the Western Conference particularly wants to mess with in the postseason.
McDavid has continued his MVP-level performance in 2019-20, tallying 81 points in 55 games. His long-time running mate Leon Draisaitl is the one who has raised some eyebrows to date this season, as he has outpaced McDavid in both points (85) and goals (31) through the same 55 games. His ascension to true star production is one of the many reasons the Oilers have become a real playoff contender.
While Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (39 points), James Neal (29 points) and Oscar Klefbom (32 points) from the blueline have contributed some secondary scoring, the remainder of the roster still lacks punch. The reliance on an NHL-best power play unit (29.3%) is something that tends to not bode well for scoring in the postseason. Nevertheless, the Oilers remain a dangerous opponent on a nightly basis with their current group, and the expectation is that moves may be made to bolster the depth for the stretch.
The goalie tandem of veteran Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen has been average, stopping a combined .905 percent of shots as they have split time fairly evenly all season. With Tippett’s defensive system in place, the Oilers may see some improvement just as players continue to familiarize themselves with their responsibilities in the first year of its implementation.
If the Canes want to finish out the week strongly with a win in this late afternoon tilt, they will need to take advantage of what could be some tired Edmonton legs. Sunday will be the third game in four days, and the second of a back-to-back for the Oilers. If Carolina can push the pace and stay out of the penalty box on Sunday, they should have a decided advantage at home.