The Carolina Hurricanes did a good job on Friday knocking out Patrik Laine of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Now comes a tougher challenge: the double threat of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers.
Laine was limited to one shot on goal as the Canes cruised to a 4-0 victory, ending an 11-game one-point streak from the forward that included 13 goals.
The Hurricanes (36-11-4), with the last change at home, managed to get the matchups they wanted – often defenseman Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce on the ice with Laine – while goaltender Frederik Andersen cleaned up the rest on his third shutout of the season. Laine, a true marksman, and Boone Jenner of the Jackets, who has 22 goals, weren’t factors in the game.
McDavid could be the best player in the world, a claim Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour won’t dispute. Draisaitl is clearly among the best. Those will be the Canes’ game issues on Sunday in the 1 p.m. game at the PNC Arena.
What makes McDavid so special?
“It pretty much covers everything, but the dynamic part is what really makes it special,” Brind’Amour said Saturday. “There are really good players and then good players who do more. Round up all the big players and there will be more, if that makes sense. He’s faster, his stickhandling is incredible and his speed with the puck. It explodes like I have never seen before.
So is McDavid the best player in the NHL?
“He has to be,” Brind’Amour said. “There are a lot of greats nipping at his heels, but just the overall talent, I have to say.”
Then there is Draisaitl. He has 36 goals, which puts him tied with NHL leader Auston Matthews of Toronto. McDavid, who has 28 goals, and Jonathan Huberdeau of Florida each have 75 points, the most in the league.
The Oilers (29-20-3) and Panthers faced off Saturday afternoon in Sunrise, Fla., and it was Derek Ryan who starred for Edmonton in a 4-3 win. The former Canes striker had a hat trick while Draisaitl netted a goal and McDavid two assists.
Skjei was asked on Saturday — other than “taking up time and space,” the mantra of all NHL defensemen — what can be done to slow down McDavid or Draisaitl.
“Well, that East the #1 thing, I think,” he said. “If you give these elite players time, they make these plays around you. So you try to stay on top of them as much as you can and don’t let them follow you.
The problem with McDavid is that he is the fastest player on the ice. He gets behind you, beats you.
“You have to start skating and moving early,” Skeji said with another smile. “With a guy like him, you have to be aware of where he is on the ice when the game is going because he can hide and jump around you pretty quickly. You need to know where it is.
Another way to muzzle McDavid or Draisaitl is to keep the puck in the offensive zone as long as possible. The Canes did just that on Friday, hitting 50 shots against Columbus and keeping the Blue Jackets busy defending their own end. If goaltender JF Bérubé hadn’t been sharp, it could easily have been a 5-0 or 6-0 game.
“When we’re at our best, we play in the opposite zone, on top of the guys, dropping the puck down,” Skjei said.
The Canes beat the Oilers, 3-1, on Dec. 12 in Edmonton when Sebastian Aho scored twice and Nino Niederreiter netted one. That was long before the Oilers fired Dave Tippett as coach, before the Oilers signed enigmatic forward Evander Kane.
The Oilers were in a tailspin, losing 15 of 20 games, when Tippett was fired Feb. 10 and replaced by Jay Woodcroft, who had coached the Bakersfield Condors, Edmonton’s AHL affiliate. They’ve gotten tougher in recent weeks, winning five in a row after the coaching change and battling for a playoff spot.
“You can tell they’ve structured their game a bit more and I think they’re using their squad a bit differently,” Brind’Amour said Saturday. “I think a lot of times when a new guy comes in everyone gets a fresh start and plays with a bit more energy.
“They’ve always been a good team. They just found a little lull there. Obviously the talent is there.
The Canes held a short practice Saturday at the Wake Competition Center. Aho did not participate but Brind’Amour indicated that the leading scorer of the Canes took a day of maintenance.
Carolina Hurricanes vs Edmonton Oilers
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Or: PNC Arena, Raleigh.
TV/RADIO: Bally Sports South, WCMC-99.9 FM.