Game Time: 6:30PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN, NBCSN, SportsNet1, WGN-AM 720
Mike Honcho: Canes Country
Tonight the Hawks will continue their tour throughout the the southeastern US in Raleigh, where they will close out the schedule heading into the All Star break, giving the vast majority of the roster an entire week off. And as they proved a month ago, the Canes will be more than happy to kick the Hawks right in the dick if they’re planning on coasting into the break.
Though the Canes are at present only three points out of the final playoff spot in the East, there are three other teams between them and 8-seed New Jersey, all of whom have games in hand on them. But the real story on the Canes is that they not only have an outside shot at the post-season, but that they’re doing it the right way and fighting against some real hinderances- namely in net.
Cam Ward’s contract is finally up at the end of this year, one he never lived up to, and has truthfully never come close to his two-month stretch of play in the spring of 2006. So naturally just as he might be able to give the Canes some kind of return as a rental even while sporting a .905 save percentage, he got himself hurt. Now it’s likely not long-term and he’s supposed to be back after the break, but any perceived injury risk lessens his already-bordering-on-non-existent trade value. That leaves Eddie Lack to once again get the cage tonight, and he’s even worse with an .899 save percentage overall, with a ghastly .892 at home. Of course none of that stopped him from tossing a 38 save, one-goal against effort on West Madison, where his shutout was only spoiled in the dying seconds.
On top of that, the Canes as a team are shooting only 7.9% as a team and 6.5% at evens. Kris Versteeg (yeah him) is their top scoring forward with 30 points, and though Eric Stall is only one off the pace at 29, that’s still a far cry for a guy who was a lock for no fewer than 70 points a season in his first 7 or 8 years in his career. He’s primarily playing wing these days, but there will still likely be some team who pays way too much for him in the coming month. The Canes do have some nice young pieces in Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm, and Hockey Bieber (plus the occasional skate blade kick) Jeff Skinner, who leads the team with 17 goals, but there’s just not enough there yet even in the East.
No, the real strong suit from the Canes comes from their blue line, which might be the deepest in the East, at least for now. Because of an ability of nearly every one of their defensemen to push the puck, the Canes are still in the upper echelon of the league with a 53.0% share of shot attempts at evens, though that has dropped a bit since the Hawks saw them last. Things all start with Justin Faulk, who might be the most unheralded player in the league, and leads Carolina with 31 points and has a staggering 12 power play goals from the blue line. Veteran trade targets J-M Liles and Ron Hainsey have always been competent puck movers and former Pigs bench boss Bill Peters has let them off the leash. That’s allowed young go-hards Noah Hanifin, Ryan Murphy, and Brett Pesce to have safety nets, and they’ve all flourished. To put things in perspective, Liles is taking far and away the most difficult zone starts (even moreso than clear #1 Faulk) and still has a 51.55% share at evens, and he is the worst Carolina blueliner in that category. So it’s fairly clear why he’s long been a trade priority of this publication.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, December’s contest showed that they won’t just be able to sleepwalk through this one and take their two points, as the game at the UC was the last loss the team suffered prior to the winning streak. Corey Crawford will get the start tonight and then get a much deserved week off. And even if Eddie Lack sucks out loud this year, they’ll have to do more than just fire at his crest after they’re already down a goal or two.
Make no mistake, this is a playoff-caliber blue line the Canes sport, and Bill Peters could garner some Adams votes if the Canes manage to sneak in. There’s not a lot here, but there’s also no quit either, and they’ surely enjoy nothing more than providing a nice turd in the punchbowl for what has been a mostly exemplary January for the Hawks.