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Canes set for exhibition showdown with Capitals: What I’m watching

This is an exhibition game, but there’s a lot more on the line than just a warm up for several players.

NHL: MAR 10 Hurricanes at Red Wings Photo by Scott Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Carolina Hurricanes will play a real-life game of hockey later today for the first time since March. The team will play its lone exhibition game against the Washington Capitals as a tune up before game one of its Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the New York Rangers Saturday.

It’s much more than just a tune up, however. With the Canes having a plethora of options both at forward and on the blue line, and two capable goalies, the game will be important in determining final roster spots, with Rod Brind’Amour saying as much Tuesday morning.

“I can guarantee it won’t matter to some people how they play; they’re going to be playing,” Brind’Amour said. “But there’s a lot of questions for us as far as the lineup going forward. I think this game will tell us a lot.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few things to keep an eye on in today’s game.

Battle on the blue line

You might have heard this a time or two, but the Hurricanes have a deep, talented blue line. Even with Brett Pesce not in line to play until the later rounds, the Canes came into camp with eight healthy, NHL caliber defensemen.

Unfortunately, with Dougie Hamilton leaving practice in Raleigh last week with an injury, that number has likely dwindled to seven to start the Rangers series. Brind’Amour called Hamilton doubtful to play in Wednesday’s game, and Sara Civian of The Athletic’s report that Hamilton could be out “weeks” would seem to cast doubt on his availability to start the season.

Hamilton’s loss can’t be understated, but there are seven capable defenders to pick up the slack. With the NHL allowing teams to dress 13 forwards and seven blue liners for the exhibition games, all seven would seem likely to be in this game.

For some, their performance today isn’t going to move the needle today. Spoiler alert, but Jaccob Slavin is playing. Trade deadline acquisition Sami Vatanen, who has yet to play a game for the Hurricanes, has slid into Hamilton’s spot next to Slavin on the top pairing, and his spot on the top power play unit. His spot seems secure.

The second pairing of Brady Skjei (a former Ranger who’s skating and puck moving should be a boon in this series) and Joel Edmundson seems fairly set as well. Edmundson is a physical presence who won a Stanley Cup just last season.

Jake Gardiner seems likely to anchor the third pairing given his improved play down the stretch and his spot on the second power-play unit in practice. The battle really comes down to the final spot.

In practice, that’s been Trevor van Riemsdyk. He’s certainly got a case, given he’s a natural righty so no one has to play their off side, he can do a little bit of everything and has Stanley Cup experience.

That would seem to leave Haydn Fleury as the odd man out. He’s got a good case to play too though, given his strong play down the stretch and skating ability. I’m on record as saying Fleury could be a candidate to help out against Aretmi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad against the Rangers.

Even sans Hamilton, a really hard decision is going to have to be made on the blue line for game one, with the main battle appearing to be between Fleury and van Riemsdyk. TVR seems to have the inside track, but when Brind’Amour said this game will be important for some players, Fleury would seem to be firmly in that category.

There’s no reason he can’t wow his coach with a big performance, and the team could reconfigure the third pair with Gardiner moving to the right and Fleury drawing in.

Last forward spots

Though Martin Necas is also doubtful to play today, Brind’Amour said after he left Saturday’s practice that he didn’t anticipate his injury being a big deal, so it seems like Necas could play game one.

If he can’t, this becomes a moot point, but, if he can, there’s a hell of a decision for the final forward spot. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Jordan Staal, Vincent Trocheck, Necas (if healthy), Justin Williams, Jordan Martinook and Brock McGinn are playing. I feel fairly confident in that.

If this were the regular season, Martinook and McGinn might be candidates to sit. But, in a playoff series, McGinn’s physicality takes on added value, and we all know he’s good for a timely goal or two. And, without the energy provided by fans in the building, Martinook’s enthusiasm and volume will be important for a relatively quiet team.

So, the three players for whom the exhibition game takes on the most importance would seem to be Morgan Geekie, Ryan Dzingel and Nino Neiderreiter.

Neither Niederreiter or Dzingel had the best regular season, but they’ve got a fresh start following a nearly four-month break. One of those two seems likely to play alongside Trocheck and Necas, and both have their merits. Niederreiter brings a physical, power game. Dzingel had a rough regular season in that department, but has been a great finisher throughout most of his career.

That brings us to Geekie, of course. The NHL’s all-time leader in points per game wowed with three goals and four points in his first two games, and could be a candidate to play on the fourth line over whichever of Niederreiter and Dzingel doesn’t make the second line. We know he’s got a flair for wowing in a small sample size.

One or two of these three forwards having a big performance against the Caps could be a key to who draws in for game one.

Between the pipes

He’s not sure of the split yet, but Brind’Amour has already said both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer will play in net against the Capitals.

While both goalies played well all year, Mrazek would seem to have the inside track to be the game-one starter given his playoff performance last year and 38 regular-season starts to Reimer’s 24. Reimer had better numbers, however, with a 2.66 goals-against average (Mrazek finished at 2.69) and .914 save percentage (.905 for Mrazek).

Reimer was also a road warrior all season, with 10 wins in 14 road strats, while Mrazek is definitely a player who feeds off the crowd.

While there are arguments for Reimer, unless this game goes catastrophically for him, I’d expect to see Mrazek Saturday. However, if Mrazek has a bad game one and the Canes lose, Brind’Amour shouldn’t hesitate to make the switch, especially if Reimer impresses in this game.

Special teams

The Canes have spent a good amount of time on special teams in their training camp practices. They had good reason to, as their power play and penalty kill were both dismal in the regular season series against the Rangers, with the Canes’ power play going 2 for 17, and the Rangers’ 5 for 15.

Tuning up their power play and penalty kill systems will definitely be beneficial.

Intensity, physicality, health

These are two teams that don’t like each other, and it’ll be important to get used to dialing the intensity and physicality back up going into the playoffs. It’ll also be interesting to see how the team can create its own energy and intensity with no crowd.

However, there’s a fine line between ramping up and going overboard. Especially with no competitive game situations since March, there could be a possibility for injuries, and there’s no need to exacerbate that by playing overly physical.

This game is important for all of the above reasons in terms of tuning things up and figuring out final roster battles, but the No. 1, most important thing to take from this game is a clean bill of health for everyone who plays in it.

The puck is set to drop for this one at 4 p.m.; stay tuned for our game preview later today, complete with expected lines and how to watch.