Another night, and another divisional test for the Carolina Hurricanes.
This time, first place in the Southeast Division is on the line, as the 8-6-1 (17 points) Canes are even with the 8-7-1 (17 points) Tampa Bay Lightning. For now, Carolina holds the top spot in the division and third place in the Eastern Conference by virtue of games played.
“I’m excited for tonight,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “These are the games that both sides are saying, ‘Hey, if we want to be on top, you’ve got to earn it by beating the teams in your division.’”
Tonight marks the second of five meetings between the two teams. The Lightning spoiled the Hurricanes’ home opener on Jan. 22, winning 4-1, and Tampa Bay has taken five of the last seven at PNC Arena.
It’s often mentioned as a key to victory but perhaps may be vitally important tonight: a strong first period effort from the Hurricanes. The Canes have been outscored 17-7 in the opening frame this season, scoring first in just four games (3-0-1 record) and leading after the first 20 minutes only once (1-0-0 record). Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has outscored opponents 18-11 in the first period. The team is 6-1-0 when scoring first and a perfect 7-0-0 when leading heading into the first intermission.
That said, scoring first isn’t the chief aspect of a strong start.
“Yeah, we’d love to score first, but I think it’s more come out with energy, play hard and play our game in the first period that we’re looking for,” Muller said.
“When you come out, especially as the home team, you want to let the other team know that it’s not going to be an easy game for them,” said defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti. “You come out hard in the first 10 minutes, and you set the tone. You don’t necessarily have to score, but you let them know that it’s going to be a long night, that you’re going to make things happen offensively and be tough on them defensively, as well.”
In the Lightning’s 4-1 win in Raleigh in late January, they jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period. Though the Canes cut the lead in half in the second period, Tampa Bay potted two the in the third to seal the victory.
Carolina got a timely goal from Jiri Tlusty late in the first period on Thursday against Winnipeg, equaling the score at one, which was crucial in terms of momentum and the team’s game plan.
“We want to get momentum,” Muller said. “Teams obviously change their style when you’re trailing as opposed to winning, whether it’s who you use on your bench, who you play more and match-ups.”
“We just have to come out and make sure we’re ready from the drop of the puck,” Sanguinetti said.
Andreas Nodl will be the healthy extra for the Hurricanes tonight, as Jeremy Welsh works his way back into the lineup as the fourth-line center. The defensive corps remains the same, as Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen are day-to-day with lower-body concerns.
Dan Ellis, who played for the Lightning in 2010-11, will get the nod in net tonight, the second game of a three-games-in-four-days set and the first in a back-to-back situation. Muller said it’s undecided who will man the crease on Sunday night in New York.
“We’ve got to evaluate it just like the rest of our lineup,” he said. “We need to put the best group together to win that night.”