Tuesday, 8:00 p.m. at Enterprise Center
The reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues also serve as the current pace-setter in the Western Conference, continuing right where they left off last postseason by jumping out to a 31-14-8 record. While there may not be one particular facet of the game in which the Blues are dominating, they have been above average or better in pretty much all aspects of the game.
On the fringes of the top 10 in both offense and defense, the Blues have also managed to play decent in goal with Jordan Binnington leading the way with a .911 save percentage in 37 games. Special teams have seen the Blues crack the top-five on the power play behind an interesting top unit that features David Perron ( nine PP goals) and Jaden Schwartz (eight PP goals). Meanwhile, the penalty kill is in the top half of the league as well (14th), as the Blues have built their success on a deep, well-balanced team that can play several different styles when necessary and have a penchant for winning close hockey games.
A perfect 7-0 record in one-goal games (in regulation) has allowed the Blues to take advantage of most all of their opportunities for points and led to an eight point cushion within the Central Division. Incredibly, the Blues have done almost all of this work without one of their best performers. Vladimir Tarasenko has been out since late October with a shoulder injury, and he is not expected to return until potentially April. Moving forward without hardly skipping a beat while missing a player who produced 65+ points in each of the previous five seasons is hard to do, but the structure and belief that the Blues play with allows them to feel consistently in the flow of the game.
Former Cane Justin Faulk has had a fairly uneven first campaign in St. Louis. His 13 points through 53 games put him on pace for his lowest output since his age-20 season in Carolina. As his role has slightly changed and his power play opportunities have become more limited you might expect this, but even so, Faulk has in the past demonstrated more of a prowess offensively than he has shown thus far in St. Louis.
For the Canes to go into St. Louis and come out with a win they must put together a well-rounded effort in each aspect of the game. What the Blues do best is exploiting your mistakes. If the Canes can put together a consistent effort for 60 minutes, even taking the good breaks with the bad, they will be in a tight hockey game down the stretch.
Thursday, 9:00 p.m. at Gila River Arena
After arriving in Carolina just a few weeks ago in playoff position, the Arizona Coyotes have plummeted to the bottom of the West’s playoff picture by losing eight of their last nine (1-5-3), including a 3-0 blanking at the hands of the Canes on January 10th. They faced serious injury concerns in net at the time, and that weakness has been exposed, even with the return of Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper, as the Coyotes have given up three or more goals in each of those previous nine games.
Despite their skid, the Coyotes still cling to a three-point lead for the final Western Conference wildcard spot. They will be wrapping up a homestand with Carolina on Thursday before heading back east for a four-game trip that includes a visit to Boston and Toronto. Whether they have one of their top performers in Oliver Ekman-Larsson available is a serious point of concern. Ekman-Larsson missed Saturday’s loss with a lower body injury. His availability and the return of overall defensive structure is something the Coyotes simply must have if they wish to hold on to their first playoff berth since 2011-12.
If the Canes can get off to a good start in the desert, perhaps they can have the Coyotes saying “here we go again” as they continue their tailspin. The Coyotes have likely already made their big move to bolster their squad by trading for Taylor Hall, but will they be willing to dig deeper into their system or pockets to secure a playoff berth? Time will tell.
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena
The Canes will conclude their week with a rematch of the first game post-break. For more detail on the Golden Knights, check out last week’s Behind Enemy Lines.
For Carolina, this game marks an opportunity to put a better foot forward against the Golden Knights as the visitors came into Raleigh this past weekend and had their way against the Canes in the early going. A first period that ended 2-0, but could have ended much worse, was just a sign of things to come as the Canes played catch-up all evening. Ultimately they knotted the score in the third period, but a late power play goal was enough for Vegas to leave town with two points.
The Canes appeared a step slow for much of Friday’s contest, but as they built a game in the third period they showed that they can create opportunities against Vegas. Expect as different effort level from the Canes this coming weekend as they look to avenge the loss that led Rod Brind’Amour to personally challenge his team.
Effort isn’t the same as execution, however, and if the Canes want to snatch back two points from the Golden Knights that were taken from them at home, they must take advantage of more of their opportunities in what should be a tightly contested battle.
This road trip could be very consequential, in either direction, for the Canes as they currently sit tied for the final playoff spot in the East. No game or opponent can be taken for granted at this point, and desperation must be at the forefront of everyone’s mind as they look to separate themselves from the Flyers, Panthers and Islanders in jockeying for one of the wild card spots.