Their four-game series against the Tampa Bay Lightning hit a low point on Wednesday in Tampa when Andrei Vasilevskiy pitched a relatively easy 25-save shutout, and while the Hurricanes played much better the next night, old friend Curtis McElhinney made sure his former team left the west coast of Florida with no more points than they had when they arrived.
So the Hurricanes, improved as they are in general, aren’t quite at the level of the defending Stanley Cup champions. That’s fine; expected, even. But it makes the two-game series that begins tonight against the surprising division leaders across the peninsula all the more important.
Rod Brind’Amour shook up his lines fairly substantially during Wednesday’s clunker, and mostly stuck with them on Thursday despite still only tallying one goal. Nino Niederreiter and Brock McGinn swapped places, allowing Warren Foegele to move back to the right wing, and those combinations that finished Thursday’s game will also begin tonight’s.
No other changes are expected, including in goal, where James Reimer will make his second straight start. Luke DeCock of the News and Observer reported yesterday that Petr Mrazek is moving closer to a return, and should be back by the end of next week, just more than four weeks following surgery on his injured thumb.
Here is how the Hurricanes will look tonight:
Andrei Svechnikov - Sebastian Aho - Jesper Fast
Brock McGinn - Vincent Trocheck - Martin Necas
Nino Niederreiter - Jordan Staal - Warren Foegele
Cedric Paquette - Steven Lorentz - Jordan Martinook
Jaccob Slavin - Dougie Hamilton
Brady Skjei - Brett Pesce
Haydn Fleury - Jake Bean
Injuries and Scratches: Jake Gardiner (healthy), Petr Mrazek (right thumb), Teuvo Teravainen (concussion)
Taxi squad: Morgan Geekie, David Gust, Max McCormick, Joakim Ryan
There’s no question that the Florida Panthers are the story of the NHL season so far. Given little hope of making the playoffs to begin, in a division with the two most recent Stanley Cup finalists and a third team most peg with a good chance to make it this year, the Panthers were expected by most to be kicking around the lower reaches of the Central Division, same as ever.
But underestimate Joel Quenneville at your peril.
The future Hall of Fame coach has worked wonders this season, helped out by the unlikely emergence of Chris Driedger in net. Sergei Bobrovsky has been relegated to the role of the highest-paid backup in the league, because Driedger has outplayed him all year.
But it goes beyond goaltending. Needing to shake up a dormant offense, Quenneville reunited Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau in the third period of Thursday’s game against the Stars, and all the two did was spark a remarkable comeback win. Every button Quenneville has pushed this year has worked, and with the season now more than a quarter gone, the time for questioning whether the Panthers are for real has largely passed.
The Hurricanes will get Bobrovsky tonight, their first time seeing him this season. Driedger was in net for the teams’ only meeting thus far, a 4-3 Panthers overtime win in Raleigh on February 17 that saw Huberdeau score the game-winner.
Here’s how the Panthers will look:
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Carter Verhaeghe
Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist
Mason Marchment - Eetu Luostarinen - Anthony Duclair
Ryan Lomberg - Juho Lammikko - Brett Connolly
MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad
Kevin Connauton - Anton Stralman
Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas
Injuries and Scratches: Gustav Forsling (lower body), Noah Juulsen (healthy), Vinnie Hinostroza(healthy), Noel Acciari (IR upper body), Markus Nutivaara (IR upper body)
Taxi squad: Riley Stillman, Grigori Denisenko, Owen Tippett, Philippe Desrosiers
Referees: Wes McCauley #4, Francis Charron #6
Linesmen: Julien Fournier #56, Pierre Racicot #65