The Winnipeg Jets will have their best chance to create distance between themselves and the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division lead in their visit to Raleigh, NC to face-off against the aforementioned 'Canes.
As part of our gameday coverage, we had a few questions relating to the Hurricanes before puck-drop tonight.
With that, here is our pal Brian LeBlanc from Canes Country in today's instalment of Gameday Questionnaire:
1. Despite Cam Ward missing significant playing time, how have the Hurricanes been able to succeed in his absence?
When Ward was first injured, the narrative around NHL circles outside Raleigh was "well, there go the Hurricanes, kiss their season goodbye." Here, though, we were quietly pretty confident in the abilities of Dan Ellis, who had outplayed Ward up to that point although Ward was in the process of heating up when he suffered his injury. That hope may have been a bit misplaced, as Ellis and Justin Peters have served as a capable but not world-beating tandem in Ward's absence, and now Ellis himself is out for two weeks after a freak accident where he cut the back of his left leg with his right skate while making a save late in Thursday's loss to New Jersey.
That leaves the team with Peters and John Muse, who has never played a game in the NHL and didn't even have an NHL contract until last summer, and a whole lot of question marks. With big games coming up against the Jets (twice), Leafs and Rangers in the next couple of weeks, someone is going to need to step up and at least keep the Canes' head above water until Ellis returns. Otherwise, those dire predictions made when Ward hurt his knee may yet come to pass.
2. How can you assess Ryan Murphy's four game stint with the club? Did he look like a player ready for the bright lights of the NHL?
Murphy's callup was out of necessity more than anything, as the Canes were down four defensemen when he was recalled and couldn't plunder AHL Charlotte any more than they already had. He was about what everyone expected to see - a very gifted offensive mind whose skill really showed in the neutral zone, where he was regularly making pinpoint passes, but a little unsure of himself when running things from the point in the offensive zone. That will come with experience, and he certainly was far from a disaster defensively although that aspect of his game needs to improve, but it didn't look to me like Murphy is too far from being ready to at least take power-play specialist minutes and I wouldn't be surprised if he's back up here at the end of his junior team's season (he is ineligible to play in the AHL).
He still has room for improvement, to be sure, and it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to shuttle him back and forth to the AHL for a season to allow him more of a chance to develop without having to face top competition every night, but I can safely say that he brought pretty much what we expected him to bring to the team. The key now is making sure his development continues and he can turn into a top pairing defenseman by the time Joni Pitkanen's contract expires in the summer of 2014.
3. Can any parallels be drawn between this years Hurricanes roster and that which won the Stanley Cup in 2005-06?
If this is possible, there is far more offensive firepower on this team than the one that won the Cup. Keep in mind that in 2005-06 the Canes started the season with Eric Staal and very little else in terms of offensive threat, and they rode career years from the likes of Cory Stillman, Matt Cullen, Erik Cole and even 35-year-old Rod Brind'Amour to the Cup. This team is similar defensively, in that it's largely an anonymous group of defensemen who, at best, will play bend-but-don't-break hockey in their own end, but with the Staals, Semin and Skinner (throw in Jiri Tlusty, who is having a career year of his own, if you want), the Canes have far more guys on the ice every night this year who are paid, more than anything, to score goals.
Which makes this season all the more frustrating, considering the Canes' power play is third from the bottom in the league this year and has scored a whopping four PPGs in the month of March. In 2006, the Canes had a pair of middling special-teams units through most of the season that caught fire in the playoffs. However, it was never this bad, and Kirk Muller quite frankly seems to be at a loss to figure out what to do. If I had a nickel for every "we just need to work harder," I would be a rich, rich man.
2005-06 saw a group of players play way over their heads every night and they were rewarded for their effort with the Stanley Cup. This year, if anything, there's a bit of underachieving going on. The Canes, simply, should be better than this at this point in the season.
Ed. Note: We thank Brian for his for his time in this edition of Gameday Questionnaire. Look for our next edition of Gameday Questionnaire Thursday with our pals from Pensburgh.