Now that Justin Williams faces at least a month on the sidelines with a broken hand and Scott Walker still doesn’t appear to be on the radar, Patrick Eaves will get the chance to show what he can do on a scoring line with Matt Cullen and Ray Whitney tonight.
Having played on the third and fourth lines for most of this season, it’s been a while since Eaves has gotten an opportunity like this one. He’s gone up to a scoring line once or twice earlier in the season, but Coach Paul Maurice thought that caused him to get away from the things that earned him that opportunity in the first place.
“Where he’s fallen off a little bit is when he’s gone out with more offensive players he’s played more of an outside, perimeter, skilled game that doesn’t suit him and the way he needs to play,” said Maurice of Eaves. “He needs to take the fourth and third line mentality into the top two lines.”
Health is a big reason why Eaves has been an effective depth player for the Hurricanes. He’s had injury problems of his own, but hasn’t had to deal with the lengthy absences that Williams and Walker have. Instead, he was plagued by a nagging shoulder ailment that caused him to miss time on five separate occasions since joining the team in February of 2008.
Even when he was in the lineup, the injury still made him feel tentative about playing the physical, grinding game that made him a first-round pick in 2003 and a 20-goal scorer with Ottawa during his rookie season.
“It always helps out when you’re going in to play the body,” said Eaves of his recently good health. “You don’t want to be thinking in the back of your head about your shoulder. It’s 100 percent now and it feels great.”
Although Maurice’s unwillingness to break up Rod Brind’Amour’s line with Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose was a factor in Eaves’ promotion, the hope is that Eaves can bring more of a defensive presence to the scoring lines The 24-year-old is quietly leads the team with a +7 plus/minus rating, which is five better than anyone else on the roster. He’s also one of only five regular players who are even or better, which isn’t bad for someone who only has seven points all season.
As an example of his strong defensive play, Maurice singled out Eaves for preventing a goal against Buffalo on Sunday night.
“He made a great backcheck, and if there was one thing that was missing in the games against Florida and Columbus, it was that our forwards didn’t work hard enough to get back to the puck,” said Maurice. “He had a full-out sprint from the far end of the ice and came back, and if he takes one less stride the puck is in the net. That was the difference for him and our team."
If it doesn’t work with Eaves, newcomer Jokinen and LaRose could both be candidates to see time on that line. Although neither is listed primarily as a right wing, all indications are that Jokinen could do it if needed, while LaRose has already been on that side in recent games.