This round of NHL Predictions sees the Carolina Hurricanes back on the road to take on the Maple Leafs in Toronto. Carolina came out of the holiday break and put on a good show against the Nashville Predators in Nashville to get a 5-2 win. Pyotr Kochetkov put up a great effort and special teams proved to be the difference. Then against the Montreal Canadiens at home, Carolina came away with a 5-3 win. Big nights from Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov led the way with Antti Raanta doing enough for his first win since being demoted to the AHL. They currently sit with 42 points and are battling for playoff positioning with other teams right on their heels with games in hand.
Meanwhile, Toronto enters this contest in the second of a back-to-back following a matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Toronto is in a solid place in the standings and in a playoff spot. While the team has had some struggles in net, as has been typical of the last few years, the offence scores in waves led by the league-leading goal scorer Auston Matthews.
Typically, this matchup would have seen a defensive stalwart in Carolina taking on an offensive menace in Toronto. But this year has been a little unpredictable for Carolina. This has the potential to be a good one for the first time these teams face each other this season. Here are three keys for a Carolina victory.
NHL Predictions: Carolina Hurricanes vs Toronto Maple Leafs
Three Keys to Victory for Carolina
Shut Down Toronto’s Offensive Weapons
This one is almost obvious on its face. Toronto is an offensive team. They have been for years and this year is no different. They are top five in goals for per game and top ten in power play percentage. Not to mention they have the league-leading goal scorer in Matthews but also boast high offensive producers in William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Even John Tavares cannot be ignored when it comes to Toronto’s offensive push as those four lead the team in goals and points. Carolina can’t sleep on the other players and just focus on those four, but it should be something they pay special attention to.
Normally, Carolina would like to get Jordan Staal out against someone like Matthews but playing away this might be less readily available. The good news is that Aho, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jack Drury are all players who play fairly solid 200-foot games. It will also require a lot of skating for Carolina’s defence as they play a man-to-man style. In theory that could work better against Toronto but if coverage gets jumbled, lost or confused and Matthews is left open with a scoring chance it may be bad news for Carolina.
I’d expect to see Pyotr Kochetkov back in the net after Raanta started against Montreal. Besides a tough outing against the New York Islanders, Kochetkov has been very good lately. Since the debacle of a road trip in Western Canada, Kochetkov has a .931 SV% and 1.97 GAA in seven games played. He is also second in the league in goals saved above average over that span with 6.13. Carolina will need Kochetkov to keep up his stellar play of late to help slow down Toronto’s lethal attack.
Establish the Forecheck and Attack the Net
One thing that is a characteristic of Carolina is that they try to establish a heavy forecheck. They favour playing the puck deep and grinding other teams out to generate tons of scoring chances. The quality may not always be the best but they will get shots. In the last two games, Carolina has found scoring production from almost everyone. Aho has been huge with back-to-back four-point nights and Svechnikov had a hat trick against Montreal. But some of the “depth” players are making huge differences in these games too.
Jack Drury has really improved this season and is noticeable on the ice. He had a goal and an assist in the last two games but has become more of a menace on the ice. This combines with his responsible two-way game. He would have had another goal against Montreal but it was called back for goaltender interference. The point is that he is doing what’s right. And he’s getting to the net. He and Stefan Noesen have been as consistent as any pair of forwards lately. Noesen’s importance to the team was explained in depth in an article here. And then there’s Jesper Fast putting in two goals against the Canadiens.
Playing against a team like Toronto who is near the bottom in goals against per game, you absolutely have to attack the net and keep up this heavy game. Toronto wants to play more of a skill game. And rightfully so when you look at their top guys. They brought in players like Tyler Bertuzzi to add some grit but they still favour “outskilling” other teams. If Carolina can get to their forecheck and keep pounding the net, it will work in their favour. Hopefully for the Hurricanes Aho and Svechnikov stay hot, but it takes everyone.
Watch the Circles
One thing that goes along with Carolina watching Toronto’s offensive weapons is where Carolina needs to focus on protecting the ice. The front of the net is a no-brainer but Toronto’s chance generation and scoring spots this year is interesting. This is seen by looking at the charts below from hockeyviz.com.
Toronto tends to generate most of their chances from the half walls and in front of the net. Interestingly, it is more of the half walls where they are converting their chances. This may show how Toronto tends to be so skilled in their shooting. You see numerous times how Matthews, Nylander and Marner can snipe from the circles and it is something that Carolina needs to watch a little more than most other teams. Again, their man-on-man defence needs to be tight and sharp and Kochetkov needs to be on the lookout. Pushing guys out of the crease and low slot will be essential too as Kochetkov needs to see the shots.
This should be a tight game between two teams with high Stanley Cup aspirations. Toronto has the high-flying offence while Carolina will look to establish its heavy forecheck and keep up its effective special teams play. Both teams have had inconsistent goaltending when you look at it across the entire season but Kochetkov has been very good for Carolina lately. Carolina is also looking to get some winning consistency that they have not had really all year. Expect this one to be anything but an easy victory for either side.
Prediction: Carolina wins 4-3
Main Photo Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
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