|Matt Cullen heads back to his old Carolina home tonight as the Senators face off against Hurricanes at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images).
Nobody knows better than Matt Cullen about what the Carolina Hurricanes are capable of bringing to the table.
On the surface, tonight's matchup between the Senators and 'Canes at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., offers a grand opportunity for Ottawa to pick up a valuable two points on the road. After all, the Sens (36-24-4) find themselves sitting on top of the Northeast Division standings, while Carolina (25-30-7) resides in the Southeast Division basement and ranks 14th overall in the Eastern Conference.
Easy pickings? Not so fast says Cullen, the former Hurricane who was shipped to Ottawa in a Feb. 12 trade. Carolina is the NHL's hottest team at the moment, riding a six-game winning streak and starting to perform a little more like the team that reached the Eastern Conference final a year ago.
"This is what, going into the season, we had all expected," Cullen said of the Hurricanes, who had been left for dead after an injury-plagued 2-12-3 season start. "After going to the conference final last year and adding some pieces that we thought would help, this is kind of the way a lot of people expected them to play. So I don’t think (this is) a real shock.
"The beginning of the season was a shock, but it’s not surprising that they’ve turned it around now that guys are healthy."
Added Senators head coach Cory Clouston: "Don't let the standings fool you. If they were healthy from Day 1, they'd definitely be in the playoff hunt right now."
They still might be. The Hurricanes are 15-7-0 since Jan. 1 and have moved to within eight points of a playoff position, although their activity on Wednesday's NHL trade deadline day — Carolina dealt away defencemen Joe Corvo, Aaron Ward and Andrew Alberts, along with forward Stéphane Yelle — suggests the 'Canes may have run up the white flag on this season.
"This is what, going into the season, we had all expected. After going to the conference final last year and adding some pieces that we thought would help, this is kind of the way a lot of people expected them to play. So I don’t think (this is) a real shock. The beginning of the season was a shock, but it’s not surprising that they’ve turned it around now that guys are healthy." - Matt Cullen
Still, Cullen expects nothing less than a stern test in his RBC Center return tonight.
"It’ll be fun," said Cullen, who was a member of a Stanley Cup-winning Hurricanes team in 2005-06. "I have a lot of good memories in that building and a lot of good friends there. But it’s a big game for us and I’m looking forward to it.
"They’re playing some really good hockey. Probably as good as anybody in the league in the last stretch. They seem to have turned things around ... so it’ll be a challenge for us."
Tonight's game also marks the debut of defenceman Andy Sutton in the Ottawa lineup. The 6-6, 245-pound blueliner, who was obtained from the New York Islanders on Tuesday for a second-round draft pick, will be paired with rookie Erik Karlsson
Meanwhile, veteran blueliner Filip Kuba
is out with a lower-body injury suffered during Tuesday's 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers.
"Probably three or four days," Clouston said when asked how long Kuba would be sidelined. "Hopefully, he'll be ready by the weekend."
Around the boards
Pascal Leclaire makes the start in goal for the Senators tonight. It's his first start since Jan. 12, though the native of Repentigny, Que., saw action Tuesday when Brian Elliott was pulled late in the second period. "It was real good to get him in and give him some minutes," said Clouston. "It should give him a lot of confidence going into tonight's game." ... Also ending a lengthy absence from lineup is forward Shean Donovan, who gets the call in place of Jesse Winchester
. Donovan hasn't played since Jan. 19. "It's been awhile," he said. "It's a chance to get back in there and it's a big game tonight, so I'm pretty excited." ... The Senators' lines during the pre-game skate: Milan Michalek-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson, Peter Regin-Mike Fisher-alex Kovalev, Ryan Shannon-Matt Cullen-Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu-Chris Kelly-Donovan.