The Carolina Hurricanes are playing their best hockey of the season.
After a dreadful start, their play has been on a steady upward trajectory, and they aren't showing signs of slowing down. The Hurricanes have gone 11-5 since the calendar flipped to 2014, and are averaging almost four goals per game in those victories. Coincidentally, goaltender Anton Khudobin has provided 11 quality starts in 2014 as well, stabilizing what had been an unsteady situation in net. The reunited line of Alexander Semin, Eric Staal, and Jiri Tlusty has been formidable, while Elias Lindholm's promotion has given the Hurricanes a top six that can compete with the NHL's best.
Kirk Muller's squad have some solid underlying numbers as well. Carolina bottomed out at 42% fenwick close in the very early going of the 2013-14 season, but the 'canes have been constantly improving since then. Their overall performance for the season sits at only 48%, but that number is sabotaged by Carolina's slow start. Looking at only the last ten games, the Hurricanes come in at 52%, the mark of a strong playoff team. Three points out of a wildcard spot, but with a game in hand on the Detroit Red Wings, Carolina is not to be taken lightly.
Of course, apparent amidst their recent encouraging play have been a couple of lacklustre losses. Of the five setbacks they've suffered, three have come by shutout. When not being shutout, Carolina has rarely failed to score fewer than three goals, making them something of a boom-or-bust offensive team in recent weeks.
The Canadiens have experienced both versions of the Hurricanes, giving up five goals on New Years' Eve before shutting out Carolina two Tuesdays ago. That shutout victory came courtesy of Carey Price, who pocketed another shutout win a week later when he beat Calgary four days ago. During TSN's broadcast of Habs-Canucks on Thursday, the network characterized Price's February as a return to form. This doesn't do justice to the play of the Canadian Olympian, who spent the better part of three months swimming against an unrelenting tide of scoring chances. Nevertheless, it's nice to see Carey get results commensurate with his efforts.
Tonight, C3P1 will likely need some assistance in deciding the fate of the bleu, blanc, et rouge. While score effects were most certainly at play, and the bottom of the Habs' lineup thrived against the undermanned Canucks, the top of the lineup still had trouble keeping Vancouver from putting shots and scoring chances on Price. As discussed above, the Hurricanes have two dangerous lines at the top of their forward group, and those skaters are likely to pose a greater threat than the Habs' Henrik-less opponents were able to on Thursday. If the Plekanec and Eller lines can't keep pressure off of the Habs back-end, the dangerous trio of Pacioretty-Desharnais-Gallagher may not be able to produce enough offence to offset the contributions of Staal and Co.
Of equal concern is the injury to Michael Bournival, who will not play this evening. Bournival had been an important contributor to a much improved fourth line for the Canadiens, and his absence will require some rejigging of the roster. If the Habs offer Bournival's spot back to George Parros, the Canadiens forward depth would be significantly eroded. With their young forward likely concussed, however, and no further games to play until after the Olympics, the Canadiens have may little other choice than to take their chances with a shallower lineup than usual.
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