Good news for the Carolina Hurricanes, according to NHL.com they're about to get four players back tonight, including Jeff Skinner. The other three are Tim Brent, Jamie McBain and Tim Gleason. Pretty good chunk of the team coming back right there, which is good for them, but maybe Pittsburgh can try to jump on them early as they're getting back up to speed.
For more about Carolina, we turned to Canes Country and our friend Brian was happy enough to answer three questions about how they're playing.
1- The huge elephant in the room is obviously Jordan Staal's first game against his old team. So, 18 games into his Hurricane career, how's he doing? Living up to fan expectations and your personal ones?
When Jordan was acquired, he was generally sold as a slight defensive upgrade, and a significant offensive one, to Brandon Sutter. So far, that's panned out, although I have to admit that I've been a little underwhelmed by his defensive play so far. The Canes' PK, which was in theory supposed to improve significantly with Jordan's skill added to it, instead languishes in the bottom half of the league statistics at 76%, where it's been for years now. That said, he and Patrick Dwyer start the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone, so he's playing the tough minutes and allowing folks like his brother and Alex Semin to do their thing in the offensive zone.
If anything I think Jordan has been a little better than advertised offensively. In 13 games through February he's been held off the scoresheet altogether only five times, he leads the Canes in assists with 11, and even with Jeff Skinner out he's still putting up points despite having a revolving door on his wing for the last five games.
Part of the reason he told the Carolina media that he was interested in heading elsewhere was that he didn't want to be pegged as a Manny Malhotra-type defensive specialist, and he's living up to his words with his play so far this season.
2- Carolina's seemed to have an inconsistent up-and-down year from game to game and Cam Ward (6-6-1, 3.15 GAA, .900 save %) isn't looking as solid as he usually does. Backup Dan Ellis has had some good outings and good numbers early. Do you put more of it on team defense or more on Ward needing to make a few more saves?
A little bit of both, honestly, and I know that sounds like I'm trying to be diplomatic but in this case it's really true. Ward has indeed been maddeningly inconsistent, especially last week against Winnipeg when he let in four goals, all of which could be rated as some degree of soft. He started down the same road on Sunday on Long Island, but then pulled it together in the second period and gave his teammates the chance to come back and win the game. Ellis, meanwhile, is what he is: a goalie who can steal games when he's hot, but not one you can hitch your wagon to for a bunch of games in a row.
And all this is honestly a partial story without mentioning the Canes' MASH unit on defense. With Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen and Jamie McBain all on the sidelines, the Canes have been forced into playing Ryan Murphy, an OHL callup, and guys like Marc-Andre Gragnani, Michal Jordan and Bobby Sanguinetti from AHL Charlotte. Gragnani was such adumpster fire on Tuesday that he was swapped out for Jordan again, who will likely be in the lineup tonight, but the bottom line is that the defense has been doing the goaltenders no favors at all and desperately needs to get healthy in a hurry. The Canes are built to score in transition, but they can't win every game 9-7.
3- We all know the Staal brothers, Alex Semin and Jeff Skinner but who are a few of the "under the radar" guys that have been playing well lately and are players to watch out for tonight?
Keep your eye on Jiri Tlusty, who has found a home alongside Eric Staal and Alexander Semin on the Canes' first line. Coach Kirk Muller moved Tlusty to play wing on Riley Nash's line this past weekend in a bid to spread the scoring around a bit, but it was a disaster all over the lineup and Tlusty eventually made his way back to Staal's line, sparking the comeback on Sunday against the Islanders and playing some solid minutes in Tuesday's shutout in Washington despite joining the rest of the team with bagels on the score sheet. Tlusty was given up for dead by most of the hockey glitterati when he flamed out as a Leaf years ago, but given the chance to show his stuff with Carolina he has more than delivered. Staal and Semin are less dangerous with anyone other than Tlusty playing left wing, and unless they go in the tank Muller is likely going to have to keep that line together based on what we've seen happen when they're separated.