NHL Preview: NY Islanders Visit Hurricanes

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IMarch 20, 2009

RALEIGH, NC - MARCH 18:  Eric Staal #12 of the Carolina Hurricanes reacts after scoring a goal against the New Jersey Devils during the second period at the RBC Center on March 18, 2009 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Carolina Hurricanes will take on the New York Islanders at the RBC Center tonight, with two valuable points in the standings on the line. 

Normally, one would think that a game against the Isles would be a free two points. 

Not right now.

The Islanders have actually been playing their best hockey of the season in the month of March, during which they are 5-2-1, and have outscored opponents 26-20 (not great, but excellent by the Islanders' standards). 

One driving force behind their hot streak is a sudden flow of offense.  When in the offensive zone, guys are creating traffic in front of the net and redirecting shots for goals or cashing in on rebound chances from the slot. Opposing goalies don't stand a chance. 

In transition the Islanders are getting out of their own end quickly and throwing pucks at the net from just inside their offensive zone. 

These initial shots seem to be aimed at the opposing goalie's chest protector so that the puck will deflect off of the goaltender to the other side of the ice, where an Isle is often crashing the net and in prime position for a second-chance goal. 

It may sound a little crazy that a team would try to produce offense this way, but they've been doing it for their entire hot streak, so that seems to indicate a specific strategy.

The other key factor behind this hot stretch for New York is goaltending.  Other than a loss to the Rangers, the Islanders' goalies have not given up more than three goals in any given game this month. If you watch film of any of these games, you'll notice that the defense isn't especially good, but rather the goaltenders make a lot of impressive stops. 

That's why the Islanders are averaging 2.5 goals against this month.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are a small team that uses its quickness to get into passing lanes and make plays on defense. 

The Islanders should be able to take advantage of that by shooting from the perimeter and looking for rebound chances.  Carolina goaltender Cam Ward will need to maximize his rebound control tonight.

The Hurricanes are on a hot streak of their own, outscoring opponents 24-7 in their current six-game home winning streak.  Their most recent win at the RBC Center was a 4-2 thumping of the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night.

The Canes are playing team hockey fueled by chemistry. 

This recent chemistry is the direct result of acquiring former Hurricane Erik Cole, whose veteran leadership and scoring ability has helped lead Carolina back into playoff position since he came over at the trade deadline.

Since Cole joined the team, everyone has looked more in-sync, and more than a few goals have been scored because of crisp, efficient puck movement, only achievable through anticipation of teammates' movements.

The defense has also stepped up.  Opponents' shots are contested, passes are intercepted or at least redirected off-course, and the backcheck is strong.

Lastly, Cam Ward has been a stellar last line of defense as the goaltender.  His consistency has been spot-on (Ward's save rate in March is 94 percent), and he has found a way to come up with the important saves when called upon. 

In addition, his puck handling skills continue to improve, which allows the offense to get going faster in transition.

The Islanders have been on a tear lately, but they're a dreadful 8-24-3 on the road.  To their credit, however, they've won their last two road games. 

But the Hurricanes are on a better home winning streak, and their defense has been much better than the Islanders' lately.  

In addition, the Canes have the urgency of being deadlocked in an extremely tight playoff race right now. 

The Islanders are just waiting for the end of their nightmarish season. 

Look for the Canes to pull out the win at home.