In somewhat of a scheduling quirk, the Carolina Hurricanes will meet the New York Islanders for the third time this month alone.
Often times, such frequent meetings will stir up rancor between the two sides. This season series has been virtually absent of that. Just a combined eight penalties have been called in the team’s two meetings, all two-minute minor infractions.
Despite that, the Hurricanes have been and are frustrated with this New York team. In two games against the Islanders this month, the Canes have earned two points, dropping both games by just a goal. New York won 4-3 in a shootout on Jan. 3 and pocketed a 2-1 overtime win on Jan. 21.
“Every game is competitive. The last two games have been good hockey games,” forward Eric Staal
said. We’ve got to make sure we get the points out of our building, and I’m sure it’s going to be tight as it’s been.”
This will be both teams’ first game following the All-Star Break. The Canes last played eight days ago, a 2-1 win at home against Winnipeg. Head coach Kirk Muller said this game is about getting back into the flow and rhythm of things.
“Guys are going to want to push and get energized knowing here to the end is the final stretch,” he said. “It’s the little details of the game that our guys have been doing a better job at, and we have to continue that tonight.”
The Hurricanes come into this game having won three straight at home. Though the Canes closed out December with a three-game home winning streak, they haven’t won four in a row at home in nearly two years; from Jan. 24 until March 11, 2010, the team put together an eight-game home winning streak.
A successful stretch of that magnitude would undoubtedly help the Hurricanes’ playoff chances, but the team is taking it on a game-by-game basis. At home has been where the team has had the most success.
“We’ve been coming out strong, our tempo of play has been good and our focus has been good,” Muller said. “We get off to a good start, and you get your fan-base behind you. It’s becoming a comfortable place for our players to play. They’re confident here, they have the good record, so you build on it. We’ve seen the best of our games here so far.”
All-Star forward John Tavares has brought his best against the Hurricanes. He leads the Islanders in points this season with 49 (20g, 29a), and in two games against Carolina, he’s racked up 5 points (2g, 3a). He recorded a three-assist night on Jan. 3 and scored the Islanders’ two goals on Jan. 21. Muller knows that Tavares’ line with Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo is going to present the biggest threat.
“They’ve got one line that can hurt you, and they play a lot,” Muller said. “Tavares has really impressed me. His endurance and skating has improved since he broke into the league, so he challenges the guys that play against him to take it right to the final minute or even into overtime. So, that line is very potent, and they play a high-tempo game.”
Being in the friendly confines of the RBC Center will allow Muller and his staff to get the match-up they want against Tavares’ line, likely tossing out Brandon Sutter
’s shutdown trio and the gritty defensive pairing of Tim Gleason
and Bryan Allen
The Hurricanes’ second grouping has a bit of a new look to it. Before the break, Jeff Skinner
centered Jussi Jokinen
and Zac Dalpe
. Tonight, look for recent call-up Riley Nash
to center Jokinen and Skinner. This is Nash’s second career NHL stint, as he played two games in December.
Moving Skinner back to the wing is as much a move for him as it is for slotting Nash into a familiar spot, Muller said.
“We’re looking for a guy to jump into the top six,” he said. “[Nash] can play center, and it gives Skinner more room to play offensively.”
That line also features three players who have played and are capable of playing at center, which could be of importance in the face-off circle. Muller said that gives them the freedom to shuffle who is taking the draw should one player be struggling or should the side of the ice favor a right- or left-handed player.
Staal knows the importance of keeping the ball rolling on what has been a successful three-game stint at home, dating back to mid-January.
“We want to start off of this break right and get a big win at home,” he said.