The Hurricanes will be playing their final leg of a four-game road trip these next couple of days when they take on the Minnesota Wild and the Colorado Avalanche. Being from different conferences, it isn't too often that the Hurricanes get to see these teams and it has been nearly two years since they last played either Minnesota or Colorado. Many changes have occurred with both of these clubs since the last time the Hurricanes saw them, so I thought it would be a good idea to profile them to get a closer look at what the Canes are up against.
Carolina has struggled against the Western Conference this year and both Minnesota & Colorado are both top teams in the league right now, but in different ways. Find out what I'm talking about after the jump.
We'll start off by looking at tonight's opponent, the Minnesota Wild. They have only 11 points in 10 games and are currently sit in the bottom-half of the Western Conference. However, the Wild are much better than their record shows, as they are the best team in the NHL at controlling puck-possession at even strength. They have regularly outshot and outplayed their opponents at even strength, which should translate to them winning more games as the season goes on. They're starved for offense right now (Nashville is the only Western Conference team with fewer goals), but the Wild have been very good team at pinning their opponents into their own end and wearing them down in the process.
Carolina faced a similar team a couple weeks ago in the Los Angeles Kings and the general vibe I got from them is that they don't create a lot of chances, but they dominate teams territorially by getting the puck on net and forcing their opponents to play defense by getting to rebounds and dominating teams below the goal-line. I haven't watched a lot of the Wild this year, but it wouldn't surprise me if this is how they operate, especially when taking their low goal total into account. They have some high-end forwards on their club in Zach Parise & Mikko Koivu who are some of the best two-way players in the league and a few very good puck-moving defensemen in Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon who have helped them become a better team at even strength this year. They haven't scored much thus far, but I have to believe that will change as the season goes on. Teams who can control play this much don't go unrewarded forever.
So how do you beat a team like the Wild? Going by their season stats, their Achellis heel appears to be their penalty kill. They currently rank 27th in the league in PK success percentage and have allowed 10 of their 22 goals against while playing shorthanded. Carolina's power play has been in a rut most of the year, but if they want to get past the Wild, they may need it to click today. The Hurricanes haven't shown the ability to keep up with some of the better possession clubs in the league, so their best bet tonight is to win the special teams battle. That or take advantage of any mistakes the Wild might make. They are a team that has had the puck nearly 60% of the time and while that generally works in their favor, it can lead to mistakes and Carolina creating a few chances in transition. This isn't how I'd like to see Carolina win all of their games, but it might be what they need to do in order to get two points out of Minnesota tonight if the Wild are at the top of their game.
As for tomorrow's opponent, the Colorado Avalanche, they currently sit at second in the Western Conference with a record of 8-1-0 only there are some doubts about how long their hot start will last. The Avs are winning and have seen some excellent play out of young star Matt Duchene, but their performance at even strength has been somewhat underwhelming. They are outscoring their opponents 16-9 during five-on-five play, but their ability to control territorial play has been pretty weak, as they currently rank 25th in the NHL in Corsi percentage. Normalize it to close game situations and they look a little better but they still rank in the bottom-half of the league.
This isn't to suggest that Colorado's early success is built completely on a house of cards, because they appear to have taken a few steps forward from the last three seasons, but it is fair to say that they are playing above their heads. Much of their success is backed by their goaltending, as Semyon Varlamov is currently playing some of the best hockey of his career. He has posted a save percentage of .950 in six games and back-up Jean-Sebastien Giguere has spelled him nicely in allowing only two goals on 103 shots. These two have played a big role in Colorado's success, especially in helping their penalty kill which is currently the best in the NHL.
We see teams like the Avalanche every year and most of them fade out once the All-Star break comes around, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Avs cool off as the season goes on. That said, their hot streak could continue for a little while longer and Carolina will probably be in for a tough task tomorrow night. The Avs still have one of the deepest forward corps in the league and that will create some matchup issues for the Canes, especially since they are playing on the road.
Carolina might be able to outplay the Avalanche, but their defense will have trouble containing some of their skilled forwards and the Canes will need to play a clean game in their own zone in order to win. With Valarmov currently playing out of his mind, Carolina can't afford to make many mistakes and could be in for a rough night if they get lost in their own end or turn the puck over against one of Colorado's top lines
Either way, both of these games will be great tests for the Canes and I'm excited to see how they turn out.