During tonight’s home game against Colorado, the Canes will see if they’ve benefited from one of their longest breaks of the season.
Tonight’s match-up against the Avalanche is the first of a back-to-back set that will also take them to Nashville on Saturday. Those are the only two games over a 10-day period that the team hopes can serve as a buffer between their hectic opening months and the typical grind of the second half.
“What we’ve had and what we have ahead of us are two completely different things,” said Erik Cole, who will tonight become just the sixth player to play 500 games in a Carolina Hurricanes sweater. “We have enough space between games that we just need to blast it all out with these next two. If we can do that, we can build some confidence.”
Cole will join Rod Brind'Amour, Jeff O'Neill, Eric Staal, Niclas Wallin and Glen Wesley in the Canes' 500 club. Having played his 500th NHL game last season (tonight will be his 563rd overall, having spent part of the 2008-09 season in Edmonton), Cole said he was unaware of tonight’s milestone. Still, he’s hoping to make it a memorable one.
“Knock on wood, we’ve usually had some pretty good games after we’ve been able put in this kind of work,” he said. “Having had to play, recover, play and then recover for so long earlier in the season … there’s a difference between morning skates and practices where you have two or three days between games.”
“We expect to see a little more jump, a little more fight and little more spring in our step,” added coach Paul Maurice.
For the Canes, Colorado will be the second in an unusual string of five consecutive Western Conference opponents. The Avalanche are experiencing something similar, as they kicked off a stretch of six consecutive games versus the East with Tuesday’s home overtime loss to Atlanta, and are beginning a five-game swing through the Southeast Division tonight.
Colorado will be getting a few previously-injured players back in the lineup, as goaltender Craig Anderson (groin) is expected to start opposite Cam Ward and 39-year-old defenseman Adam Foote (thigh) should play following a three-game absence. Tomas Fleischmann, a former divisional nemesis of the Canes who was acquired from Washington via trade earlier in the week, is set for his Avalanche debut.
The Avs do still have a few players on the shelf, most notably their goal-scoring co-leader, Chris Stewart, who is out 4-6 weeks for a broken hand suffered during a fight last week. Fortunately for the visitors, they boast a balanced attack that features five players with 20 or more points (including Stewart), while the Canes have just one in Eric Staal.
Like Carolina, Colorado also relies on young talent they’ve acquired through the draft in recent years. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, a first-round pick in 2007, joined Jeff Skinner in the “honorable mention” category for the NHL’s Rookie of the Month award by scoring 11 points in November. Matt Duchene, the Avs’ third-overall pick in 2009, has goals in each of his last four games.