Before the CBJ puck drops: Carolina Hurricanes

GAME 68: Carolina Hurricanes

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29-30-9 — 7th place in the Metropolitan Division

3-7-0 in last 10 games

 

SCORING RANKINGS

Carolina

Goals for: 2.47 goals/game – 20th in the NHL

Goals against: 2.81 goals/game – 20th

Columbus

Goals for: 2.84 goals/game – 9th in the NHL

Goals against: 2.72 goals/game – 16th

SINCE WE LAST MET (on Jan. 27):

In that prior game, the Hurricanes beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-2, in Raleigh. They also were a reasonably legitimate playoff contender at the time. Since then, they’ve gone 5-11-0 and have slipped to nine points behind the last Eastern Conference wild card playoff spot. We’ve already seen one team (Buffalo) eliminated from the playoffs, so the draft lottery balls are starting to assemble. Will the Canes be in that mix, rather than the Stanley Cup Playoffs dance?

Things are getting rough down on Tobacco Road. So rough, in fact, that Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller gave his team the business after practice yesterday. I’m sure that sports coaches do this much more often than we fans would like to think, which makes this article recapping the dressing-down all the more interesting. Was this a reporter listening in closely? Was this a team media department (or coach) tipping off a reporter to publicly convey a message to the team? At this point, when the odds are stacked against you, does it matter?

The heat is on in Carolina, and it’s not just that vinegar-based bar-be-que.

Top scorers in Carolina are:

– Forward Eric Staal (16 goals, 36 assists, 52 points)

– Forward Jeff Skinner (26 G, 18 A, 44 pts.)

– Defenseman Andrej Sekera (11 G, 30 A, 41 pts.)

– Forward Alexander Semin (18 G, 21 A, 39 pts.)

– Forward Jordan Staal (14 G, 22 A, 36 pts.)

Perhaps the key benefit of waiting until the gameday afternoon to offer this preview is the opportunity to learn who the starting goaltender will be. In this case, Muller is starting Anton Khudobin over Cam Ward. I almost called Khudobin a "backup" because of Ward’s prominence in All-Star and Olympic circles over the years, but it turns out that Khudobin has had more starts (25) than Ward (23). Then throw in that Justin Peters has 20 starts, and I think you can see that this is not an altogether settled goaltending situation. Anyway, Khudobin is 14-10-0 with a .925 save percentage and a 2.30 goals against average. All of those numbers are significantly better than Ward (8-11-5. .893 sv percentage, 3.14 GAA).

WHY THIS GAME IS IMPORTANT:

First, and most important, the Columbus Blue Jackets are getting next to no help from the rest of the National Hockey League in their quest to make the playoffs. I mean, even the Pittsburgh Penguins blew a home and home against their archrivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, over the weekend. With no help, the pressure is squarely on Columbus’ shoulders to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup playoffs dance. Win, and keep winning, and you’re in. Lose, and you put your fate in other folks’ hands.

That said, this game is uniquely important because it comes across to me as Kirk Muller’s last stand for the 2013-14 season. He had the post-practice blowup that was referenced earlier. He’s sticking with Khudobin despite giving Ward the starts all last week (Khudobin started on Sunday and lost to Edmonton, 3-2).

There’s a sense of finality in the air, and the Blue Jackets can be the team to put Carolina’s playoff hopes to rest. Good teams do that to not-so-good teams. A convincing regulation win tonight by Columbus will further cement the team’s confidence going down the stretch.

WHO I’LL BE WATCHING:

Carolina has cemented themselves as the 20th best team in the league. 20th in goals for, 20th in goals against. (OK, 25th in standings points…but you get my point.) The Canes have no obvious areas of strength, so there are no obvious areas of overarching concern as a result.

Thus, I’ll go with whom I sense get rolling when the Blue Jackets machine is at full throttle. It’s not your likely choices, like a Ryan Johansen, a Boone Jenner or a Nick Foligno (though Foligno is tempting). I’m thinking of two players: R.J. Umberger and Brandon Dubinsky. With zero advanced stats to back up my assertion, I’m going to suggest that these are two guys who seem to rise to the occasion. It might be breakaways, assists or perhaps goals, but things seem to go well for the Blue Jackets when either Dubinsky or Umberger are on track.

YOUR FOX SPORTS OHIO BROADCAST INFORMATION:

FOX Sports Ohio has it all for you tonight:

– Brian Giesenschlag and Dan Kamal bring you the "Blue Jackets Live Pregame" at 6:30 p.m.

– The puck drops at Nationwide Arena at 7 p.m., with Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge on the call.

– Brian and Dan return immediately following for "Blue Jackets Live Postgame" with postgame interviews, insight and analysis.

Can the Blue Jackets help finish off a divisional rival and, in the process, further improve their own chances at making the playoffs? Tune in and see!