Riding a two-game winning streak, the Carolina Hurricanes wrap up their six-game preseason schedule against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night in Raleigh.
The Sabres topped Carolina 5-2 in the team’s first meeting just over a week ago, but since then, the Canes have strung together consecutive exhibition wins – a 3-1 victory over Montreal on Saturday and a 2-1 finish in Columbus last night – for the first time since 2010. A win tonight would ensure the Hurricanes their fourth .500 preseason finish in five seasons.
“We’re pleased with the last couple of games,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “There’s one more game for some guys who have the opportunity to show what they have.”
As teased by Muller on Thursday, the lines are shuffled for tonight’s final dress rehearsal. Radek Dvorak slides up alongside Jiri Tlusty and Eric Staal, and Chris Terry shimmies down to the left wing with Brett Sutter and Kevin Westgarth. Zac Dalpe is in the lineup, while Jeremy Welsh is the healthy extra.
On defense, Brett Bellemore and Matt Corrente will sit out while the coaching staff tests new pairings with the six blue-liners in the lineup.
“It’s our last game, and tomorrow is a day off, so we can push them again tonight,” Muller said. “It’s sort of a mix of making sure the veterans get the right amount of ice time and giving the other guys fighting for jobs that opportunity to battle and try to earn it.”
One grouping that remains constant is the team’s second line of Nathan Gerbe, Jordan Staal and Patrick Dwyer. Gerbe netted two goals in last night’s 2-1 victory over Columbus, including the game-winning goal in the final minute.
The play (which you can see at the 1:48 mark here) began with Staal using his big frame to win a battle at the blue line and chip the puck to Dwyer, who then found Gerbe slipping through the defense. Some nifty mitts from Gerbe potted the goal, his team-leading third of the exhibition season.
“Jordan, everyone knows what he brings to the table. Patrick is a hard-working guy, and I think all three of us have one thing in common, and that’s work. It seems to click well,” Gerbe said. “[The coaches] are giving me a good opportunity, and it’s my job to try and take advantage of it. I can’t ask for anything else beside that.”
“We want to push him. We’d like to see him score a couple every night,” Muller quipped when asked about Gerbe’s chances of winning a roster spot. “It’s safe to say that he’s certainly taken advantage of [his opportunity], played well and produced, so that’s a lot in his favor so far.”
Cam Ward will receive his second straight start in net, but Muller said it’s undecided whether the 29-year-old goaltender will play the entire game. Ward made 25 saves in his first victory of the preseason last night in Columbus.
“It’s one more day of him mentally preparing for another game,” Muller said. “We’ll evaluate it as the game goes on … to see how much play he gets. If we feel like it’s good for him to just play half a game, we’ll make that judgment call.”
Tonight will mark Buffalo’s seventh and final preseason match. They have compiled a 4-1-1 record, most recently topping the Blue Jackets 3-0 on Wednesday. After the Sabres’ pugilistic match in Toronto on Sunday, Muller said he doesn’t expect tonight’s tilt to be too rowdy.
“They’ve got some personnel that play hard and can agitate you. I think it’s important that we keep our discipline and play our game,” he said. “It’s a game of emotions, for sure. Things happen, and nothing is pre-planned. Guys want to finish on a good note and play hard.”
With key players (Alexander Semin, Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu, Tim Gleason and Elias Lindholm) still sidelined with injuries, tonight’s match gives the Canes’ coaching staff one last chance to tinker with their game group before opening night, which is exactly a week away.
“We don’t know if they’ll be ready for the opener or not, so we’ve got to take it one day at a time, assess our personnel and make decisions that give us the best lineup possible on Oct. 4,” he said.