The Carolina Hurricanes host the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night in their third of three straight home games against Western Conference opponents.
The Canes have earned points in 11 of their last 12 games against the Blackhawks, dating back to March 2000. Since 1997, the Canes have posted an 11-2-3 record against Chicago, and the last time the Blackhawks won a game at Carolina was Jan. 14, 1998, a 4-1 decision at the Greensboro Coliseum.
But historical statistics won’t necessarily translate to tonight, when a 3-1-1 Chicago team comes to Raleigh for the first time since October 2011.
“We’ve got a great opponent tonight, and we’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game. I think our guys [will] bounce back,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “I think they’re looking forward to a good, tough match-up tonight.”
Still, the Canes have recently fared well against Cup winners. Since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, Carolina is 7-1-1 against defending champions.
Through five games in this early season, the Blackhawks have only trailed for 4:57, according to Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune. Perhaps a reason for this is because they jump on teams early. In the first two periods this season, the Blackhawks have outscored opponents 12-6 and outshot them 130-81.
“They’re a skating team, and they really take time and space away everywhere. There is not going to be any free time here tonight,” Muller said of Chicago. “They’re a direct team. They get the puck, and they’re putting everything to the net.”
The key to securing the Canes’ seventh win in their last eight home games against the Blackhawks? Rebound with an effort that’s smart, purposeful and energetic.
“Teams like Chicago, they have good players and they don’t beat themselves. They’re consistent on everything they do, and they do everything well,” Muller said. “That’s what we have to do tonight: play a good solid game, not beat ourselves and do the right things.
“We’ve got to be ready to play well defensively and be on the right side of the puck,” Muller continued. “When we do have the puck, we have to get our forwards skating. Puck placement is going to be really important in that we put it in areas where we can retrieve it again and create a good forecheck.”
The line combinations that Carolina utilized in practice on Monday will be in action tonight. Tuomo Ruutu will skate on the first line with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin. The 30-year-old Finnish forward, who was drafted by Chicago ninth overall in 2001, returned from a lower-body injury on Sunday, logging 10:28 of ice time.
Ruutu said it took him a few shifts to settle into the pace of the game but said, physically, he felt fine.
“It’s tough to make those extra plays right away when you’ve been out for a long period of time,” he said. “So you get the first hit in, a couple passes and a shot, and you start feeling more comfortable.”
Muller said the coaching staff will monitor Ruutu tonight to see if he’s able to respond to top-line minutes. If not, a winger like Drayson Bowman can jump up for a few shifts.
“We’re going to push him,” Muller said. “If he’s going well, then great. If not, the important thing is having players that can go up in the lineup and take some ice time.”
Cam Ward will get the nod in net for the Canes. Ward, who should settle into regular starts with Anton Khudobin (lower-body) on injured reserve, is 3-0-1 with a 0.98 goals-against average and two shutouts in four career appearances against Chicago.
Tonight marks the fifth game the Hurricanes will have played at home in the 2013-14 season, a bit of an odd occurrence for this time of year. Following tonight’s game, the team will depart for its annual State Fair road trip – if you can even call it that. After two road games in Toronto and New York, the Canes return to Raleigh for three days of practice before heading West for a pair of games in Minnesota and Colorado.
“It’s going to be a good team to play at home, and it will be a high-tempo game,” Muller said. “It’s always nice to try to win the last game before you go on the road, and this is the one. This would be a great win to go into Toronto with.”
As a programming note, it’s Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night at PNC Arena, and you will notice a number of players sporting lavender tape on their sticks to mark the occasion. Check out this blog post from yesterday to find out which organizations will be represented on the concourse and how you can support the Hurricanes, NHL and NHLPA in hockey’s most important fight.