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Game 25 Preview: Hurricanes at Capitals

Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals
7 p.m., Verizon Center
TV: FS-Carolinas, CSN-Washington

Ask any Caorlina fan what the low point of the Hurricanes season was and they will likely point to their 3-0 loss to the Washington Captials two weeks ago. The Hurricanes roster experienced a barrage of injuries at the time and put together easily their worst performance of the season. They were outchanced 23-12 at even strength alone and were just dominated in all phases of the game. Things could have easily been much uglier on the scoreboard if it wasn't for the play of Cam Ward. To make things even worse, the Canes had also won only one out of five games at this point and zero games within their own division, which led to a lot of questions of this team's effort. 

The team's performance on that night was not up to standard, but in the heat of the moment it is easy to forget that the Canes were not playing with their permanent roster. Their defense corps consisted of two AHL-ers and one junior hockey player along with AHL depth composing most of their bottom-six. Add in some disjointed lines and that's usually a recipe for disaster. The Hurricanes have slowly gotten more healthy since that night and have won four of their last five games, so I would expect different things in tonight's re-match with the Caps.

I know that everyone wanted that game against the Caps to be special with all of the media fanfare surrounding Alexander Semin's return to Washington, but that was just one bad game and the Hurricanes can put that behind behind them with a win tonight. The Hurricanes can do themselves a huge favor this week by gaining points in their three divisional games this week, while the Caps are hanging on for dear life to their playoff chances so this game is relatively important for both teams. The Caps are probably the more desperate team, but the Canes seriously need to start picking up some more divisional wins if they want to lock up the Southeast. 

Having a reasonably healthy roster will help the Canes tonight but they are still going to need to play much better than they did on their last trip to Verizon Center if they want to escape with two points.

Know Your Opponent: Washington Capitals

Washington
SF/60 27.9
SA/60 29.5
EV Sv% 0.92
EV Sh% 8.3%
FenClose 47.19%
PP SF/60 47.1 (15th)
PP% 25.6 (4th)
PK SA/60 59.9 (29th)
PK%

75.5 (29th)

The Caps were trending upward for awhile after a terrible start to the season. They went on an impressive 8-3-1 run before dropping their last two games over the weekend and now things are back to being all gloom and doom in the nation's capital. While I do not think the Caps were as bad as they started the season, they were playing a tad above their heads in their most recent run and are probably close to being around a .500 team based on their underlying numbers. Some people have said that the team needed time to adjust to head coach Adam Oates' system and while I buy that, I still don't think they were as good as they played during their hot streak based on their underlying numbers.

Washington has great depth forwards capable of driving the play, two of the best young defensemen in hockey and a promising goaltender in Braden Holtby, but they have issues outside of that. Some of their top players have struggled to carry the mail at even strength this year and their defense is a grab bag outside of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. On top of that their goaltending has been really "hit-and-miss" on any given night, especially Holtby who recorded a shutout in his last game against Carolina.

The Caps biggest strength is their powerplay, which has been on fire lately and can easily put a huge dent in this Carolina penalty kill that is still at the bottom of the NHL in shot prevention. Washington hasn't been producing that many shots on their powerplay, but they are finding the back of the net a lot (19.8% 5v4 shooting percentage) and the Canes goaltenders have had a lot of problems stopping shorthanded shots. This is the type of game that special teams can dictate even if Carolina manages to win the battle at even strength, which they should be able to.

Tentative Lines

Tlusty – E. Staal – Semin
Skinner – J. Staal – Jokinen
Terry – Nash – Dwyer
Bowman – Brent – Wallace

Harrison – Faulk
Gleason – Corvo
McBain – Sanguinetti

Ellis
Peters

Johansson – Ribeiro – Ovechkin
Fehr – Backstrom – Brouwer
Chimera – Hendricks – Ward
Wolski – Perreault – Beagle

Alzner – Kundratek
Schultz – Carlson
Schilling – Oleksy

Holtby
Neuvirth

Five Things to Watch For

- The Caps posted 20+ even strength scoring chances the last time these two teams played and it wasn't Ovechkin's line that was doing the damage, it was most of their depth forwards. The Canes allowed Wolski, Ward and Perreault to run wild on them two weeks ago and that was partially because the Hurricanes depth was a mess at the time. They are still dealing with some injuries now, so this could end poorly for the Hurricanes if Riley Nash's line struggles. He has played well in recent games, so I'm a little confident here but things could still get ugly, especially after how badly the fourth line got lit up by Ryan Carter and Tom Kostopoulos against New Jersey.

- The key matchup for Kirk Muller is likely going to be Jordan Staal's line against Mike Ribeiro and Alexander Ovechkin and while Ovi is always dangerous, I would be a little more weary of that second line. Fehr, Backstrom and Brouwer have been terrific at driving the play forward this season and Backstrom is still one of the 15 best centers in the league despite what the media tries to tell you. Eric Staal's line will probably end up going head-to-head with this line, but I wouldn't be surprised if Jordan Staal ends up getting this matchup due to how much better they are at driving possession than Ribeiro, Ovechkin & Johansson.

- Washington's powerplay might be running hot but their penalty kill is just as bad as Carolina's, so this is a perfect chance for them to get something going on the powerplay. Special teams can be what ends up dictating this game and the Hurricanes can easily win this battle if the Caps struggles on the PK continue. This is a unit that gave up nearly 20 shots shorthanded to the Islanders the other day and has problems with discipline, so that alone should tell you what kind of problems the Caps PK is going through.

- The strong play of the Caps depth forwards might be able to off-set their defensive shortcomings, or at least they better hope that it does. Washington's blue-line right now is very similar to what Carolina sent out against them two weeks ago, with two AHL-ers composing their third pairing (including one making his NHL debut), a rookie on the top-pairing and a guy who was a healthy scratch for most of the season on the second pairing. This is something the Hurricanes should look to expose tonight, especially if the Caps get into penalty trouble. There aren't many guys there who I would trust with big shorthanded minutes, save for Alzner and Carlson.

- Justin Faulk has been mostly excellent this season but he's had a couple of rough games lately, and will have a tough assignment tonight against the Caps top-six. Young defensemen tend to hit a "wall" sometime during the season and I'm wondering if this is the case with Faulk or if it's just a stretch of 2-3 bad games that he will recover from. It's likely that this is nothing to worry about, but I'd still keep an eye on his performance just in case. I think reuniting him with Tim Gleason would be a wise move since he played better with him, but that may not happen until Joni Pitkanen returns to the lineup since the coaching staff wants to spread the wealth among the defense. I don't think Harrison has been "dragging Faulk down," but the two haven't been great when paired together this season.
 

This week is going to be one of the most important stretch of games for the Hurricanes this season, so they will need to make sure they come out of this with points in all three games. It will go a long way towards the end of the season.

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