Carolina Hurricanes at Toronto Maple Leafs
7 p.m., Air Canada Centre
TV: FS-Carolinas, SportsNet-Ontario
Starting this long road trip with a 5-3 loss to an injury-depleted Flyers team on Saturday night probably wasn't what the Hurricanes had in mind, so they will look to turn things around tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs. That loss to the Flyers was yet another game where Carolina managed to outplay their opponent at even strength but end up on the losing end thanks to a couple miscues and bad special teams play. Both the powerplay and penalty kill are becoming a huge story for the Hurricanes this year and not in a good way, as it appears that both are the Achilles Heel for this team that looks much improved on paper compared to last season. Most people saw the penalty kill going through a rough patch this year since this team doesn't have many shutdown defensemen, but the powerplay going only 4/36 on the season is a bit of mystery with all of the talent present. Both areas have been a focal point during practices the past week but we've yet to see much results. This could change tonight when they take on another club with struggling special teams in the Maple Leafs.
Know Your Opponent: Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto's season started off with quite a bombshell with GM Brian Burke being fired and Toronto Marlies GM Dave Nonis taking over for him. They also have somewhat of a "new" coach in Randy Carlyle who took over for Ron Wilson towards the end of last season. The Leafs haven't been too bad to start the year with a record of 4-4-1 and a goal differential of only -2. You wouldn't know that by looking at their possession numbers, though. Toronto has been controlling only a little over 46% of the 5v5 shot attempts during close games, which puts them towards the bottom of the league. Their current record actually sounds about right considering their possession rates and that they are an average team when it comes to shooting and save percentage. It could be a lot worse than it is right now, though.
The Leafs suffered a pretty big blow only three games into the season when they lost Joffrey Lupul to an upper-body injury but their scoring hasn't impacted too much. They've seen some great play out of Matt Frattin, who has six points in five games and Nazem Kadri, who is also scoring at more than a point-per-game pace. Kadri has actually been really impressive on more than just the scoresheet, as he has done a fine job of carrying the play at even strength for the Leafs. These two along with Mikhail Grabovski and James Van Riemsdyk have done the majority of scoring for Toronto thus far which has helped take Leafs fans mind off their star player Phil Kessel who has yet to light the lamp this year. He is averaging 4.5 shots per game, so Kessel is due to see a few bounces go his way eventually, but I'm sure Carolina will be fine with him not getting off the schnide tonight.
Aside from goaltending, a big weakness I see with the Leafs is their defense. Most of their blue-liners who are getting big-minutes aren't doing much to drive the play at even strength and they are trusting some of their toughest assignments to guys like Mike Kostka, a 27-year-old undrafted free agent who is playing his first season in the NHL. Toronto is already pretty thin on defense with Jake Gardiner being sent down and Carl Gunnarrson battling injuries. They also lack depth in their bottom-six and their fourth-line has been a huge liability this year. Although, Carolina's may not be much better if they decide to dress Kevin Westgarth to give Colton Orr a possible dance partner.
Tlusty – E. Staal – Semin
Skinner – J. Staal – Dwyer
Bowman – Jokinen – LaRose
Wallace – Brent – Westgarth
Gleason – Faulk
Pitkanen – McBain
Harrison – Corvo/Sanguinetti
Van Riemsdyk – Bozak – Kessel
Macarthur – Grabovski – Kulemin
Kadri – Komoarov – Frattin
Orr – McClement – McLaren
Phaneuf – Kostka
Liles – Komisarek
Franson – Fraser
Out: Steckel, Gunnarsson, Hamilton
Five Things to Focus On
– Dalpe was sent down to Charlotte last night and who slides up into his spot on the second line remains to be seen. A popular guess has been Patrick Dwyer getting a promotion to the second line after his powerplay goal against Philadelphia, which might actually turn out to be a good move. If Jordan Staal is going to play the shutdown role as he did in Pittsburgh, the one thing he needs is a defensively responsible winger and that's exactly what Dwyer is. Plus, Dwyer's performance this year has shown that he is capable of carrying possession. Whether or not he can continue to do that against the toughs and not third-line competition remains to be seen, but promoting Dwyer to this spot makes more sense if the team is going to send Dalpe down.
– An interesting fact about the Hurricanes penalty kill is that they have allowed only 3 goals on 20 attempts at home, whereas they have allowed 7 on 13 attempts while playing on the road. There is a good chance that this could end up being random variance by the end of the year but the difference between the two percentages now is staggering. Toronto's powerplay hasn't been very good so far this year, but if the Hurricanes road woes continue, they could have themselves a breakout game tonight.
– Alexander Semin and Phil Kessel have something in common and it's that neither has scored an even strength goal this year despite being two key offensive players on their team. I don't think anything is "wrong" with either player given that they are both driving possession and creating offense, they are just snake-bitten and will rebound eventually.
– I'm still not sure if Clarke Macarthur will play tonight but if he sits, that will change up things a lot concerning matchups. His line with Grabovski and Kulemin is very good at carrying possession against tough competition and they can also create a good amount of offense. It's pretty much what we hope the Jordan Staal line will be at some point this year. In the games Macarthur did not play in, the Leafs moved Jay McClement up to the second line and had Grabovski play the wing instead of center. McClement played a shutdown role when he was with St. Louis, so moving him up there makes sense in theory even if he doesn't have much offensive upside.
– Cam Ward should get the start in goal tonight and he owned the Leafs last season with a .940 save percentage over four games. He has looked a bit off to start the year, though so I'm not sure how much last year's numbers mean in the grand scheme of things. The goaltending at even strength hasn't been a complete disaster for Carolina this year (.921 combined Sv%) but they are letting in a lot of goals on the powerplay and I'm not sure how much of those are on Ward/Ellis. Let's just hope that Ward has a quality outing in net tonight.
Getting back to .500 would be a nice way for Carolina to get things back on the right foot but they are going to need to improve their special teams play if they want to have any realistic chance at the post-season and tonight is a good chance to right the ship there. Enjoy the game.