It feels a bit strange to be deep into January and only be playing the Carolina Hurricanes for the first time this season, but thanks to the realignment, here we are. The Canes and Cats will be playing only three games against each other, and the Panthers want to make each of them count, as the Hurricanes currently sit four points ahead of Florida in the standings. Carolina has had just as much trouble as the Panthers when it comes to scoring goals this season, but the Canes have done a much better job of keeping the puck out of their net.
The Hurricanes have been enjoying the resurgence of Jeff Skinner this season, whose 21 goals leads the team, and whose 35 points ties Eric Staal for the team lead in scoring. Skinner had a rough go last year, dealing with a few injuries and the dreaded sophomore slump. He couldn't really get it going during the lockout-shortened season, but this year he's been mostly healthy and the Canes most dangerous player. How dangerous? He's played 35 games, and has 35 points, meaning he's playing at a point per game level. There are only 16 players in the entire league averaging a point per game or better, so Skinner is enjoying being a part of that list along with names like Crosby, Tavares and Stamkos.
The Panthers are going to have to bounce back from a crushing home loss against a vastly superior San Jose Sharks team that just controlled Florida's play throughout the game. Despite scoring four goals the game before, the Panthers couldn't manage a single tally against the Sharks and backup netminder Alex Stalock. The lack of scoring is a disturbing trend that is now becoming commonplace, and it's an outlier when the Cats manage more than two goals in a game. If the Panthers want to seriously talk about being in the playoffs and climbing the standings, they have to start scoring more, period. Relying on defense and goaltending on a team that has a -35 goal differential over halfway through the season is a recipe for failure.
Cancel all your plans and make sure you're front and center for the LBC GameThread, and when boredom strikes, I guess you can go visit Canes Country, but no one's twisting your arm.
Players to Watch
Elias Lindholm - The fifth overall selection in the 2013 NHL draft, Lindholm is getting bumped up to center Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu against the Panthers. He's another teenager playing in the NHL who would've likely benefitted from some more seasoning, but the Canes needed offensive talent in the lineup, much like the Panthers, and so Lindholm has suited up for 24 games this season. He's definitely a talented player, so the Cats will have to pressure the young center and play a physical game against him to keep him from making plays to the ever-dangerous Skinner.
Drew Shore - He's playing better and better each game and the coaching staff is noticing. Shore's out there getting PK time and playing some tough minutes for the Panthers, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him start climbing the depth chart. He's not going to score 20+ goals for the Cats this season, but he's showing that he may be ready for a regular role with the club as a solid depth player, and maybe more.
Eric Staal - With eight points in his last ten games against Florida, Staal is generally a Panther killer. He's always been a dominant center and the Cats will have to play physical hockey and keep Staal to the perimeter. The Panthers blew too many defensive coverages against the Sharks and if Staal is allowed to do the same in this game, he's going to end up on the score sheet. He's a top-end talent and Florida knows it, so we'll see how they handle Staal.
Dmitry Kulikov - For awhile after his benching and being healthy scratch, Kulikov simplified his game and became a pretty solid defenseman for Florida. Then, inexplicably, he reverted not too long ago to someone who doesn't play simple defense, trying to do too much with the puck and randomly being out of position without it. He's gotta simplify things again if he wants to avoid head coach Peter Horachek's doghouse, and he can start by making the simple plays in his own end rather than trying to skate around or through two or more opposing forecheckers.