There’s rest periods and then there’s just being off the ice too long. While the Carolina Hurricanes are cranking through their annual State Fair Road Trip, the four-day layoff between games has created some chaos.
Just as injured players like Tim Gleason and Elias Lindholm were near their returns and were being cleared to play, two more injuries surfaced out of practice, sidelining Pat Dwyer and creating concern about Nathan Gerbe. With these concerns and others, the Hurricanes literally cannot get on the ice fast enough.
Coming into Thursday’s matchup against the Minnesota Wild, Carolina sits in a comfortable second place in the Metropolitan Division, two points ahead of the New York Islanders and three behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. Looking at the standings and the schedule, this is not a bad place to sit.
Their placement in the standings is entirely theirs to lose. Staying a game or so ahead of the Islanders isn’t all that tall of an order and could conceivably even become a wider lead. An overtime win behind Pittsburgh is a respectable place to occupy, and leaves first place within arm’s reach.
Divisional standings are important to the Hurricanes right now simply for the sake of legitimacy. Being able to hold their own in what is turning out to be a very weird division can be a spark for the team’s morale. While it’s not the Battle Of Stalingrad that the Pacific Division is turning out to be, leading the Metropolitan is respectable in and of itself with teams like New York and Pittsburgh.
Quite simply, things are not as awful as they have felt during the layoff. Gleason remains a game-time decision according to head coach Kirk Muller, but insiders report he is likely to return and play on a pairing with Ron Hainsey.
Save for the sudden injury to Dwyer and the report of backup goaltender Anton Khudobin being at least a week to two weeks from returning, Carolina can easily hold their own against the Wild. They very much will need to do so before heading into Friday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche.
Colorado is absolutely demolishing the Western Conference and is one of the few teams who could pose a threat to the juggernaut that is the San Jose Sharks. Not to take away from Minnesota, but Thursday’s game could be an excellent sword-sharpening for Carolina and get them to walk into Denver with heads high and chests out.
Minnesota sits very close to Carolina in a number of statistical categories. While the Hurricanes have a slightly better percentage on the penalty kill, Minnesota carries a substantially lower goals against average and a much better 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio.
With Wild goaltender Josh Harding enjoying a hot streak, it’s a great bet he’ll get the start in goal. Carolina would be wise to start Cam Ward over fill-in Justin Peters. Ward is simply more reliable in the clutch situations. While his numbers have yet to bounce back to Ward-like levels, he’s already been coming up with the monster saves that his reputation is built upon.
This is needed when facing heavy hitters like Zach Parise and Jason Pominville. With a Ward vs. Harding goaltending battle likely, this could be a low scoring affair and a great warm-up for facing Colorado’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who may or may not be a cyborg.
Minnesota allows very few shots on goal — the fewest in the NHL at 21.2. The Hurricanes would benefit from giving forwards like Gerbe and Alexander Semin the license to shoot and play the law of averages since the Wild don’t face many shots.
The questions surrounding Carolina’s health and readiness after a four-game layoff will vanish once they take the ice on Thursday night. For players, this is not a moment too soon.