There is a short distance from anger to motivation.

Sometimes, feeling disrespected or getting embarrassed can be an animating force.

This week, I scoop up teams with a chip on their shoulder.

Here are my best bets for Saturday’s NHL action.


Vancouver Canucks at Carolina Hurricanes

Saturday, January 15 – 1 PM ET

Murphy’s law paid a visit to Carolina on Thursday night. It was a nightmare performance by Carolina, who got shellacked by the Columbus Blue Jackets 6-0. Sometimes, the score isn’t indicative. In this game, it was. 

Like a report card that cites “needs improvement,” the Hurricanes had no shortage of areas with room for growth. Puck management was a tragedy. The Hurricanes’ defensive coverage was porous. Boxing out was flaky.

For perspective, the worst goal-differential losses the Hurricanes have suffered this season were three-goal spreads, which happened twice. Coach Rod Brind’Amour doesn’t strike me as a laid-back, Type B personality, so I imagine his players got a candid opinion on their poor play.

On Saturday, the Hurricanes face a stiff test. The Vancouver Canucks have been transformed under new coach Bruce Boudreau. Clearly, the biggest beneficiary is goaltender Thatcher Demko. When Travis Green was coaching the Canucks, until early December, Demko had a -1.67 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx), which is mediocrity personified. Since Boudreau has been behind the bench, Demko is just outside the top five in GSAx, and he led all goaltenders in the metric until recently.

Under Boudreau, the Canucks are far more aggressive stepping up and holding the zone and denying the entry, and their inflexibility to surrender the line makes advancing the puck against them very difficult. Of course, the Canucks’ defencemen’s confidence is a byproduct of faith that their forwards will cover through the middle and underneath, and most of the time the help does come.

In Thursday’s game, the Tampa Bay Lightning did get rush looks when they were able to bypass the defenceman standing up at the blue line and get a step on Vancouver’s F3. The Hurricanes similarly have a clutch of forwards who are dangerous in transition, so whether the Canucks can bottle them up on the rush will be a plot point to watch.

In the offensive zone, especially on the cycle, the Hurricanes should look to crib from the Panthers’ playbook when they played the Canucks Tuesday night. The Panthers had a lot of success passing from low to high against Vancouver, and when the Canucks sank low to aid their defencemen, they left the points open. The Florida defencemen were able to find the shooting lanes and hit the forwards for deflections.

Overall, the Canucks struggled to box out the Panthers in the slot. The Hurricanes are a very good forechecking team, and they will surely be looking to spread Vancouver out and test them with shot-passes and battles in the low-slot.

I get worried about the Canucks’ ability to score. In four of their last five games, they scored two or fewer goals. The Canucks are effective using quick-ups to try to advance the puck during line changes, but that masks the fact that they don’t have much of a rush attack, which is unfortunate because the Hurricanes sometimes struggle to defend the rush.

Vancouver lives and dies by the forecheck, and if the Hurricanes can keep the Canucks out of their end, we could be looking at a multi-goal spread. Nevertheless, I’m content seizing the middle ground and taking Carolina at the regulation line.

Pick: Hurricanes -145


Washington Capitals at New York Islanders

Saturday, January 15 – 2 PM ET

In the off-season, the New York Islanders made an unusual decision. When Nick Leddy, arguably their most mobile defenceman, was traded to the Detroit Red Wings, the organization needed another body on defence. Ultimately, it decided that 44-year-old Zdeno Chara would be an adequate replacement. That judgment has proven to be misguided.

As NHL teams have moved away from stay-at-home blueliners when constructing defensive groups, the Islanders have embraced them and, unsurprisingly, their secondary scoring has been lacking. Aside from Noah Dobson, the Islanders’ best skater and playmaker on the back end, they have received only three goals from their defencemen.

The limitations of the Islanders’ defensive group because of their lack of mobility are far-reaching. They can’t rely on several of their defencemen to lead a breakout or escape forechecking pressure. And some opponents have let their wings sag in their own end – overloading on the Islanders forwards – believing they won’t get burned by leaving the Islanders’ defencemen open at the point.

New York has been plagued by injuries and other health ailments, but the fundamental tension is how the team’s forwards overcompensate for a defensive group that is failing them over 200 feet.

Pop quiz: Under coach Peter Laviolette, how many times have the Washington Capitals lost five straight games? The answer is zero. On Saturday, the Capitals will try to stave off a fifth-straight defeat, and I have optimism they will succeed. For one thing, during their four-game losing streak, the Capitals are controlling play. When the score has been within one goal at 5-on-5, Washington is outshooting its opponent and has a strong expected goals percentage. In high-danger chances allowed, the Caps have been stingy.

It’s important to mention that Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie were reinserted into the lineup on Monday but missed three of the Capitals’ four losses during the recent downturn.

Despite the glossy names, an important caveat is needed. Has there been deterioration in Backstrom’s and Oshie’s play? I think the sample size is sufficient to acknowledge that two players who are 34 and 35 years old respectively don’t have the same offensive command they once had. But their presence in the lineup reconfigures the forwards in an important way, slotting depth forwards in more manageable roles, and putting less of a burden on the defencemen to gin up offence.

The best argument against the Capitals is Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin. He has been awesome this season, and no one Washington can put in goal will be his equal. The Islanders have won three straight, but the only game in that stretch where they finished with more high-danger chances than their rival was against Buffalo.

Against the Devils on Thursday night, New Jersey doubled New York in high-danger chances, as the Devils had success gaining speed through the neutral zone and the Islanders struggled on the forecheck.

I think the Capitals’ losing streak ends Saturday.

Pick: Capitals -135


Dallas Stars at Tampa Bay Lightning

Saturday, January 15 – 7 PM ET

Weekends should be geared toward leisure and fun. For the Dallas Stars, who voyage to Florida to play the Panthers on Friday night and then the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, it will be time spent in stressful and difficult milieus.

When Dallas is on the road, it has not gone well. The Stars are 14-3-1 on home ice and 4-10-1 away from their rink. This Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation depending on where they play has left them vying for postseason wild-card position. Even though the next two games are out of conference, it is critical the Stars win one or both to stay in the postseason hunt.

The Canucks’ recent success on the forecheck against the Lightning should be encouraging to the Stars’ brass. The Stars lean into a chip-and-chase approach, and if they can force the Lightning to play in their own end for an extended time, Tampa Bay can get sloppy closing gaps and identifying its defensive assignments.

Somewhat discreetly, the Stars have a line that has been close to unstoppable this season: Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski. They are outscoring their opponents 21-10 and enjoy an outrageously good high-danger chances differential at 74-34.

To try to squelch the Stars’ offensive impact, Bolts coach Jon Cooper will utilize Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev. On Thursday night, Cooper’s shutdown pair struggled, as the Canucks nearly doubled them in shots when those two were on the ice. But if Cernak and Sergachev have a bounce-back performance and stifle Dallas’s Pavelski line, the Stars will struggle to find scoring elsewhere.

A fount of offensive opportunity has come when the Lightning defencemen have activated. Victor Hedman is always looking to cut to the backdoor off faceoffs or drive up the weak side to convert a rush chance into a four-man attack. But Cernak and Sergachev are also important contributors in terms of loosening up the opposing defence for the forwards. That may mean carrying the puck in on an entry to free up the forwards off the puck or occupying a lane to open up a seam pass.

The Lightning are smart with how they harness the centre-lane drive as a wedge to create space or test an opposing defenceman on a give-and-go in the lower slot. The Stars excel at preventing shots in the slot, so eradicating the Lightning’s time on the rush is paramount.

The Stars will be on the road playing the second game of a back-to-back. The Lightning are coming off a clunker on Thursday.

I’ll take Tampa Bay, even at the 60-minute line for the lower price.

Pick: Lightning -130