Gameday 52: Serious Business Time

No sense in complaining about the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1 loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday. After all the energy dumped into the 5-4 overtime winner against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, the Penguins didn’t look like they were in the right state of mind against Toronto and had an off night across the board. Oh well, moving on!

This afternoon (ugh), the Penguins play host to the Carolina Hurricanes for the first of three meetings this season. It’s been a full month since Pittsburgh faced a foe as high in the standings as the Hurricanes, a 5-3 win in Vegas on January 17, and as I’ve indicated recently, the schedule gets pretty tough for Pittsburgh from here on out. Carolina had been near the top of the Metropolitan Division standings for a while there, battling with the New York Rangers for first place, and as of this writing as it stands the Hurricanes are still in second place, two points behind Pittsburgh and just one point ahead of the Rangers.

It’s been several years now that I’ve been watching the Hurricanes (not very closely, mind you), waiting to see if they would finally emerge as a team that would contend for the Stanley Cup. Prior to hiring Rod Brind’Amour before the 2018-19 season, the Hurricanes had gone nine straight years between postseason appearances, finishing in the bottom three of their division every time. In 2019 they made it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals, but ran into a Boston Bruins team that ended up losing in seven games to the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Finals. The next season, again, ran into the Bruins in the first round. Last season, they were in the way of the Tampa Bay Lightning who were en route to their second straight Stanley Cup championship. But Carolina appears to be at the peak of their powers, as they are third in the League in points percentage, a rate that is the best in Hurricanes franchise history, just ahead of least year and two spots ahead of their lone Stanley Cup win in 2006, the first year post-lockout.

A Ho

These are not the same Hurricanes we may remember from 2006 or even 2009 when the Penguins and Hurricanes met in the Eastern Conference Finals. In fact they’re a fair bit different from when the two teams last met on March 8, 2020, just a few days before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the League to suspend operations. Justin Williams, who scored two goals in just 12 minutes, has retired. Jaccob Slavin led Carolina in minutes played in that game, but defensemen #2 and #3, Haydn Fluery and Joel Edmundson are gone, replaced by Brett Pesce (who was injured for that 2020 game), old friend Ian Cole, Ethan Bear, and Rangers cast-off and erstwhile miscreant Tony DeAngelo, who just so happens to be leading all Carolina skaters in point shares, ahead of Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. Starting in goal will likely be Frederik Andersen, continuing once again to excel in the regular season as consideration for another Vezina finalist nomination seems likely.

Cole Hole

Right now the only impediment in the Hurricanes’ way to glory is likely themselves. They have remained fairly healthy to this point in the season, although they are without Jake Gardiner and Vincent Trocheck for tonight. As I said, they have been one of the best teams in the League without much interruption to this point in the season. Just as they did with Cam Ward in the years of their serious playoff runs in the years immediately after the lockout, they have a Vezina-caliber goaltender who they heavily rely upon. Andersen has a lot of miles on him though after Toronto used him for the vast majority of their games. Can he prove himself as reliable as Ward despite the heavy usage? If so, things could maybe finally go very well for Carolina this spring.