Who: Carolina Hurricanes (4-3-3)
When: Tonight, 9:00PM EST/7:00PM MDT
Your Starting Goalies: COL – Semyon Varlamov (5-1-0), CAR – Justin Peters (0-1-0)
The Dangermen: Mighty-might and Justin Beiber lookalike Jeff Skinner is the current scoring leader for the Hurricanes with nine points (he’s tied with three others for the team lead in goals with three) through the team’s 10 games. His M.O. since he’s come into the league has been the same: a dynamic, creative offensive force when he’s healthy. And the latter has been a big question mark for most of his career. Still, he’s healthy now and someone the Avalanche need to keep in check.
Another familiar face is right behind him in captain Eric Staal. One of the 48 Staal brothers, Eric has star potential and the ability to take over any game. Even if he doesn’t get on the score sheet, he makes an impact with his defensive play and ability to win faceoffs. Since he also comes from the famed hockey family, there’s also a chance he could divide himself into several other Staal entities.
Behind him, there’s a logjam in scoring and mostly from the defense (more on them later). There’s also a new face in the crowd: Nathan Gerbe. A not-quite-as-mighty-might, the diminutive winger was released by Buffalo after a miserable 2011/12 season and looks like he’s having a resurgence with three goals and six points so far.
Jiri Tlusty, Alex Semin, Tuomo Ruutu, and Staal brother #11 aka Jordan are all worth keeping an eye on. Ruutu has been dealing with injury early this season, Tlusty and Staal have struggled to just a pair of points each, and Semin has five points in his first ten games. Struggling as they may be, this group is still one that can bury the puck so the Avs will need to be on their game.
The Defenders: Gone is top defenseman Joni Pitkanen. The anchor of this defense, he was lost for the season and the Canes are using a committee approach filled with puck-movers.
Five defensemen show up in the Canes’ top 10 scorers, led by Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy. Both are slighter in stature and susceptible to being overpowered, but both can move the puck with authority. They can also quarterback the power play, adding another dimension for the Canes.
Joining them in that department is another former Sabre, Andrej Sekera. He’s a strong skater and solid overall defender with who’s capable of leading an end-to-end rush at any moment. This team has no shortage of guys who can make things happen from the point, so the forwards will have to be responsible in their own end or the Canes blueliners could make them pay.
Rounding out the group are Jay Harrison, Brett Bellemore, and free-agent acquisition Ron Hainsey. They’re decidedly average as a group; right in the middle of the pack in every relevant team defensive stat.
The Avs are likely to get their chances, but this group will also be on their best behavior in their own end because…
Puck Stoppers Inc.: This is ugly.
Cam Ward was the guy we’d normally talk about here, but lost him for a few weeks to the dreaded lower-body injury. It’s not the first time Ward has missed an extended period of time and it’s worth wondering if he’ll ever shake that stigma.
Bad as that is for the Hurricanes, it gets even worse. Backup Anton Khudobin, who was good as backup for Tuukka Rask in Boston, is also hurt leaving the role to mostly-AHL goaltender Justin Peters. The 27-year-old goalie has seen some time with the Hurricanes over the last four years, maxing out at 19 starts last year. He might get a chance to take a run at that this year if Ward can’t shake the injury bug.
Peters is what he is and isn’t likely to be much more than okay as a stop-gap for the Hurricanes.
How the Avs match up: The Canes are second in the Metropolitan division that is somehow awful (only one team is above .500). They’re middling at just about everything.
This seems like a great matchup for the Avalanche: a group of mostly smaller, more mobile defensemen that can be pestered and bothered by a fast, aggressive Avs forward group and a third-string goaltender facing shot after shot after shot.
If the defense can limit the chances of Skinner and Eric Staal, they shouldn’t face much of a test. As always: STAY OUT OF THE DAMN BOX. This is a team with some dangerous puck movers so giving them an extra man and some room is not an ideal winning formula.
Key Matchup: Avs aggressive forwards vs smaller Canes defense.
Cower in fear if: The Canes aren’t flustered by pressure, making quick, accurate passes.
Jeff Skinner is allowed to roam free.
Justin Peters decides that this is the time to be a fine NHL goaltender.
Laugh maniacally if: The forwards are visibly bothering the Canes’ defense.
The Avs stay out of the box, limiting the chances for the mobile defensemen of the Canes.
Matt Duchene/Ryan O’Reilly continue their reign of terror.
Silly predictions: Duchene adds to his team-leading goal/point totals; Tanger finally gets back in the goal column after coming oh-so-close of late; Skinner scores after using his cloaking device to find himself wide open; Andre Benoit (balls) gets his first power play goal of the year.
Final: 4-2 Avalanche
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