The Canes will seemingly get a reprieve the back-to-back dogfights against fellow playoff bubble teams they experienced earlier this week, but as they well know, breaks are few and far between at this time of year.
The New York Islanders, who visit the RBC Center Friday night, have long been eliminated from serious postseason contention. At 27-33-11, their record isn’t terribly intimidating, nor is their status as the 14th-place team in the Eastern Conference.
However, their fortunes have changed in the second half. Since Dec. 15, they’ve posted a 22-15-6 record, which marks the third-best run in the Eastern Conference behind just Boston and Washington. That includes a seven-game points streak (4-0-3) that was snapped in their most recent game, a 6-3 loss to the cross-town Rangers on Tuesday.
Though winning their final 11 games still wouldn’t give them a very good shot at the playoffs due to their 5-18-5 start to the campaign, they now seem to be playing much better without pressure.
“Whenever a team goes on a run, you want to try to get a feel for what they’re doing,” said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice, whose team has a chance to tie the idle Buffalo Sabres for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. “They’ve got lots of confidence, lots of speed and lots of hand skills.
“When they get into the situation they’re in, there’s really no repercussions for certain things that happen on the ice, and it frees those skill guys to do what they can do, and they certainly have some skill.”
The Islanders are led by 2008 first-overall draft choice John Tavares, who has started to come into his own with 60 points in 68 games. They also boast 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson and rookie Michael Grabner, who trails the Canes’ Jeff Skinner by 8 points in the freshman scoring race.
Those players, along with expected starting goaltender Al Montoya, the sixth overall pick in the 2004 draft that may be turning a corner his career after posting a .920 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average in 14 NHL games this season, will give the Hurricanes more to worry about than earlier in the season.
”It’s the time of the schedule more than anything else,” said Maurice of his team’s two previous wins against the Islanders in 2010-11. “I think we saw them injured early and they were a different-looking team. Their confidence level is different now than it was when we played them. We’ll get all we can handle.”
The Hurricanes did not take part in line rushes at the morning skate, leaving starting units up in the air until warm-ups tonight. During Wednesday’s loss to Toronto, several in-game changes were made, including Drayson Bowman promoted to Eric Staal’s left wing and Tuomo Ruutu moving from right wing back to center.
Those changes could continue tonight.
“We run Staal in big minutes and you may see other people play with him just to back their minutes off,” said Maurice. “As much movement as we have, there’s really only three or four moves that we make, and it’s the wings with Staal and then we rotate that third-line center position.”
Maurice added that he would have no changes to his overall lineup, as Troy Bodie is expected to serve as a healthy scratch for the third consecutive game. Jamie McBain remains sidelined with a shoulder injury.