The Canes face the Capitals for their fourth and final match-up this season. As a whole, the Canes have played the Caps tough and they are 1-1-1 on the year—they won in a blowout, lost in a blowout and lost in a shootout too. Just like the past three games, tonight is another “must-win” as the Canes are four points out of the final wildcard.
The schedule continues to put more weight on the Canes games in February, as they only have four more games other than tonight’s from Feb. 7th to the 23rd. This means that every single one of those games are pretty much “must-wins” if the Canes want to be buyers and not sellers. The lack of games from now until a few days leading up to the deadline will make it tough to evaluate their “true” position in the standings too.
When you look further into the schedule, one will note that they don’t really see an uptick in games until right before the deadline and mostly extending after it is over. Looking at Feb 24th to March 23rd, the Canes will play 16 games as the schedule picks up—during that stretch, the Canes do not have more than one day off between any of the 16 games. They will have the same amount of days off from Feb 7th to 23rd, as they do from Feb 24th to March 23rd: 12 days off.
The good news for the Canes is that they are rolling right now. One of the players who has been especially notable since the break is Aho. He tallied his first career hat-trick against the Flyers and then scored the GWG against the Oilers too. His performance this past week landed him as the NHL’s #1 star for the week.
He continues to play with more confidence and it is really showing up on his ability to create pressure/turnovers on the fore-check and in the neutral zone. Many of his opportunities come as a result of his sound defensive play and positioning. In addition, now that he is producing and adjusted to the NHL, his offensive production is really taking off. Here are the highlights from his hat-trick:
The other bright spot is that in the past three games the PP has converted three times on 11 chances. This is a vast improvement as they only converted three times from Jan 1st to Jan 26th on 38 chances through 12 games.
I really like how the Canes have started to try and put two layers of screens in front of the goalie now. When the puck goes to the point or wing, they are now starting to put a guy in front of the crease and another forward six to ten feet above them in the slot area. Overall, the increase in creating traffic has resulted in some pucks finding the back of the net for the PP. If the Canes can continue to get the PP rolling they will be a much tougher opponent.
As the PP has been performing much better, the PK has actually been decreasing some. While the PK is still first in the NHL, they have surrendered two PP goals on two in 12 shorthanded situations. The slight downtick in PK performance isn’t too alarming, however, it needs to pick back up. Obviously, against the Caps, winning the special teams battle is a huge component for a win.
The bigger concern is that the most disciplined team in the NHL is starting to find the penalty box more than usual. They’ve been taking some undisciplined penalties and need to clean up the play against better teams, such as the Caps. If the Canes get caught shorthanded four to five times against the Caps, the chances of a classic “Ovie One-Timer” as relatively strong.
Another concern is how poorly the Canes played the third period against the Islanders on Saturday. The Canes did a good job of matching the intensity from the Islanders and responding to Islander goals. The Canes scored 21 seconds after the Islanders took a 2-1 lead in the second period. The most impressive response was when the Canes took the 4-3 lead with two seconds remaining in the second period on a goal that came 58 seconds after the Islanders had just tied it up.
The Canes team that came out in the final frame was not the one that we had seen against the Flyers, Oilers or in the first 40 minutes. The Canes were out-shot 11-2 and took three penalties in the final frame. They spent a majority of the time just trying to make it to OT after the Islanders tied it up with just over half of the third remaining. It was almost as if the Canes thought the game was over with the last second goal they had in the second period.
The Canes will have to have a complete game against the Caps to win. The last time the Canes took on the Caps they came out flying for the first ten minutes. Then, after the Caps tied it at 1-1, the Canes began to collapse and it resulted in a 6-1 loss. The Canes looked overwhelmed most of the night with the depth of the Caps and struggled to find favorable match-ups.
A large reality of the struggles was the fact that this was the first time the Canes faced the Caps on the road. I don’t think many people realize the true significance for the Canes success when it comes to puck possession, controlling the pace and getting favorable match-ups. Given tonight is at the Verizon Center, the Canes will have to do a better job of competing against the Caps despite not always having favorable match-ups.
Another issue that the Caps exposed during the blowout loss was the in the face-off circle. The Canes have been one of the league’s top teams in the dots and it is a large component that allows the Canes to be able to control the pace and minimize scoring chances in the defensive zone. Looking at the blowout loss, the Caps won 59% of the draws that game—in comparison to the previous two games, the Canes won 57% in the shootout loss and 62% in their blowout win. Both the SOL and blowout win were at home, further pointing to the significance of match-ups, puck possession and how it enables the Canes to better control the pace.
Overall, the Canes need to focus on winning special teams, playing 60 minutes, controlling the dots and minimizing poor match-ups. Given the “stomping” the Caps previously gave the Canes, I imagine that the Canes will be looking for some revenge. Let’s hope the Canes keep their momentum and three-game winning streak alive tonight! Puck drop is at 7:00 at the Verizon Center and is on FSCR and CSMA. Go Canes!