I’ve been covering the Carolina Hurricanes for a long time, and cheering for them for quite a bit longer, so I’ve pretty much seen it all. But tonight is new territory even for a grizzled veteran: a matchup of the NHL’s top two teams at PNC Arena.
From what my (admittedly cursory) research tells me, this is the first time in franchise history that the Hurricanes have played in a 1-vs-2 game this late in the season. The only times it had happened prior to now were much earlier in the year, when a win or a poorly-timed loss can spark significant movement up or down the standings. Sometimes those early-season matchups are fool’s gold.
But when you have the top two teams in the league facing off in March, there’s no doubt that you’re dealing with a couple of top-tier contenders.
The Hurricanes enter tonight’s game in much the same shape they’ve been recently: succeeding despite being down two key pieces on defense, and with a hot goalie looking to ride the wave for as long as he can. Frederik Andersen practiced this morning, but it sounds like Antti Raanta was always likely to get the nod, and with Andersen still nursing some sort of minor knock the Canes called up Alex Lyon again to make sure Andersen got another day to heal up.
All this to say that the team that takes the ice tonight will look remarkably similar to the one that came from behind to beat the Kraken on Sunday:
Andrei Svechnikov - Sebastian Aho - Teuvo Teravainen
Jordan Martinook - Vincent Trocheck - Martin Necas
Nino Niederreiter - Jordan Staal - Jesper Fast
Steven Lorentz - Jesperi Kotkaniemi - Seth Jarvis
Jaccob Slavin - Ethan Bear
Brady Skjei - Brett Pesce
Ian Cole - Jalen Chatfield
Injuries and Scratches: Derek Stepan (healthy), Frederik Andersen (undisclosed), Brendan Smith (upper body), Tony DeAngelo (IR abdomen)
And then you have the Avalanche, who have overcome a middling start to take their expected spot at the top of the league table.
The Hurricanes and Avalanche haven’t played each other in just over two years. The last time they did, a little more than two years ago, the Hurricanes fell on a late Samuel Girard goal. In fact, they haven’t beaten the Avalanche in this building in four years, and it’s been since the 2015-16 season since they won a season series — the teams didn’t play last season, and before then it was a run of three straight season splits.
Needless to say, the Avs will present challenges, perhaps most notably all-world defenseman Cale Makar. When you’re inviting comparisons to Paul Coffey you know something is going right, and those comparisons are not unearned: Makar’s 21 goals have him well on the way to being the first defenseman to score 30 since Mike Green in 2008-09. While Coffey’s 48-goal record for defensemen is probably out of reach, Makar is likely to be the first defenseman to average a point per game since Erik Karlsson in 2015-16, and he has an outside chance to post the first 100-point season by a defenseman since Brian Leetch hit 102 thirty years ago.
Tonight will present one of the toughest possible challenges for the Hurricanes, whose stellar penalty kill will be put to the test — to say nothing of the 5-on-5 danger — against this lineup:
Andre Burakovsky - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen
Gabriel Landeskog - Nazim Kadri - Valeri Nichushkin
Alex Newhook - J.T. Compher - Logan O’Connor
Darren Helm - Tyson Jost - Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Devon Toews - Cale Makar
Ryan Murray - Erik Johnson
Jack Johnson - Kurtis MacDermid
Injuries and Scratches: Bowen Byram (concussion), Samuel Girard (lower-body)
Referees: Wes McCauley #4, T.J. Luxmore #21
Linesmen: Julien Fournier #56, Libor Suchanek #60