The regular season is still just over two weeks away, but professional hockey returns to Raleigh tonight, as the Carolina Hurricanes take on the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Canes’ preseason opener.
It’s the first of six preseason games for the Hurricanes, and it comes after nearly a week of on-ice training camp activity.
“I think everyone is ready to get going,” said Canes head coach Kirk Muller after practice on Tuesday. “They’re eager to start playing”
The Hurricanes will ice a relatively experienced lineup against the visiting Blue Jackets, who played a split-squad set against Buffalo and Minnesota on Tuesday night. Eric Staal will center the Canes’ first line, Mike Komisarek gets first defensive pair billing with Tim Gleason and Cam Ward will get the start in net.
Muller said on Tuesday that he expects to start Ward four out of the team’s six preseason games, with the 29-year-old goaltender going at least 40 minutes tonight.
Drayson Bowman finds a home on the first line with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin in Jiri Tlusty’s stead, as the Czech forward eases back into physical play after absorbing a big hit during a scrimmage on Friday.
“I think Bo has really been skating strong and looks great there,” Muller said. “It kind of gives us an excuse to break up the big three for a different look.
“The nice thing about camp is just playing around with different combinations in case you need them during certain times.”
Elias Lindholm will make his debut in game action for the Hurricanes, as he centers the second line surrounded by Jeff Skinner and Nathan Gerbe.
“Everyone remembers their first game, so I’m sure he’s nervous,” Muller said Wednesday. “He’s just got to go out, relax and play the game.”
“It’s going to be fun,” Lindholm said, adding that he felt well-prepared for tonight’s game. “This is what you dream of as a kid, and here I am.”
The third line is intriguing in that it features three players – Chris Terry, Jeremy Welsh and Zac Dalpe – who are pushing for spots in the team’s top nine; keep an eye for who might stand out and earn another game.
The fourth line of Nicolas Blanchard, Brett Sutter and Kevin Westgarth packs three bruisers who can effectively throw their weight around. With roster cuts looming, this game could be a chance for any of the three to leave an impression.
Muller said the team would likely trim the roster into the 30’s sometime Wednesday before the three-game road swing; this game could be a make-or-break moment for a number of skaters.
“[Tonight is] just pure individual evaluation,” Muller said. “We’ve taken some time to introduce enough of the system so the guys are aware. … We don’t expect that stuff to be perfect. [We’re looking] at the competitive level and who can sustain it.”
Tonight’s tilt begins a stretch of four preseason matches in four nights. But don’t expect the Hurricanes to drop their intensity level.
“You might get one game to show what you’ve got,” Muller said. “It’s exhibition, but if I was a player in those shoes, you’d want to go out and empty the tank every opportunity you’ve got.”