Beginning with tonight’s tilt against the Minnesota Wild, the Carolina Hurricanes will play their next four games against Western Conference opponents, teams that are known to thrive in structured, tight-checking games.
The Canes are aware of this and relish the opportunity, especially considering their last two victories have come by scores of 2-1 and 1-0, respectively.
“We should have the confidence that we can go into a game and play this type of game tonight,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “Minnesota is not going to beat themselves. They’re a smart team, they play well and that’s how we have to approach it tonight, too.”
“It’s a tight league. 2-1, 3-2, 1-0, shootouts. That’s across the board,” Eric Staal said. “Everybody is starting to play a similar style game, and it’s tight checking.”
Recent games between these two teams have been closely battled. Eleven of the last 15 meetings have been decided by one goal or fewer (including two ties).
In the last meeting between the Canes and Wild, which occurred just over two weeks ago, Carolina spotted Minnesota an early 2-0 lead. Though the Canes would bring the score to within one, the two goals were all the Wild needed, as they took a 3-1 victory. That game would kick-start what turned into a five-game losing streak for Carolina.
But in the two games since, the Canes have been opportunistic, scoring the right goals at the right times. Muller said that has to continue.
“When we get that opportunity, we’ve got to cash in,” he said. “It might be in the first period, it might be the first shift of the first, it might be the last shift of the third period. We’ve got to be ready when we have the opportunity to capitalize.”
“Minnesota is playing well defensively, and we feel like we’re playing a good defensive game, so there’s not going to be a lot of room out there,” Staal said. “We have to stick to our structure and make sure we don’t break before they do.”
Building confidence in the team defense was a topic of discussion following Thursday night’s 1-0 victory. That begins and works outward with Justin Peters, who will make his seventh straight start and has stopped 49 of his last 50 shots faced.
“Not only Justin’s confidence, but our group in general, our confidence in our team game has grown a lot. We’ve had the ability to play four lines the last two games and have everybody contribute,” Staal said. “It’s going to be grinding-type games certain nights, and the team game is the most important thing. The identity of this group is getting stronger, and we need to continue to grow that.”
“We’ve got the foundation growing of playing well defensively, and the goals will come,” Muller said. “But we can’t put the goals and the lack of goals ahead of the way we’re playing.”
Not only have the Hurricanes scored timely goals in the last two games, but they’ve come from perhaps an unexpected source in the fourth line. Scoring depth – especially when Staal hasn’t scored in eight straight games, Jiri Tlusty hasn’t scored in seven and Alexander Semin hasn’t tallied in six – is a good thing to have.
“It can help you win games, as we saw,” Staal said. “Those contributions are huge.”
PNC Arena is the only current NHL building in which Minnesota has not won a game, as the Canes are 5-0-0 against the Wild at home. The Hurricanes last hosted the Wild on Nov. 15, 2009, a 5-4 shootout victory for Carolina.
Tonight’s game will bring close to the two teams’ two-game season series, as the Canes look to extend their winning streak to three games.
“In the midst of where we’re at right now, every game is extremely important, especially on this homestand,” Staal said. “We’re right in the middle of it, we’ve had a good start to it and now we need to continue on that path.”