Going into tonight’s game, the Hurricanes have finished 5-4-3 in the second coming of “Mo,” which isn’t horrible but not enough to shake them out of the 8-seed tango that the team is currently mired in with the Buffalo Sabres. In addition, the ‘Canes have lost a lot of ground on the Southeast division-leading Capitals, who are now 12 points ahead of Carolina in the standings. Even though several of Washington's regulars are still injured, they have opened up a giant lead and, at this point in the season, look to be unstoppable.
Lurking behind the Hurricanes in the standings are the ever-present but forever rebuilding Florida Panthers, currently only two points behind Carolina in 10th place. The Panthers have shown their dominance over Western Conference opponents, going 4-1 on a road swing in December, but continue to fall repeatedly, as the Hurricanes have done, to struggling teams such as the Islanders and Lightning. The Panthers always seem to be in this precarious position, where they are poised to strike but just can’t get their ducks in a row, and they have already been counted out. But perhaps this will be the year that their late surge isn’t too late to make a difference.
And now, back to the Hurricanes. 5-4-3 doesn’t sound stellar, but it’s par for the course given the coaching change and rocky schedule that included two matchups with Philadelphia, Montreal, and Boston. The Eastern Conference-leading Bruins defeated Carolina twice by scores of 4-2, at home and in Boston. Carolina looked competent against the Bruins, which is a success in and of itself this season, outshooting the Bruins twice and letting a late goal through that ultimately decided each game. However, the Hurricanes will likely be facing the Bruins if they win the battle for that magical 8-seed. (Ruh roh!)
The new system instituted by Maurice (which, quite honestly, hasn’t appeared to be too different from Laviolette’s) can’t be judged by the ‘Canes’ performance in December. Their January schedule is slightly more relaxed, and this is the stretch that will determine whether the ‘Canes are a playoff-worthy team or not. .500 hockey won’t be enough with every team going into overdrive as the season heads into February, which is “go hard or go home” time for the NHL.
The good news is that the Hurricanes look to be in a good position to take flight. Eric Staal is once again one of the hottest players in the league, with 13 points in his last 10 games. He finally had one of those “Samwise Gamgee” nights against Atlanta last week, single-handedly taking the sluggish team on his back and leading them to victory with three goals in the third period. His defensive game has steadily improved over the last few years, and it shows as his +10 leads the team. Samsonov is waking up, and Whitney – bless him – has been consistently excellent and leads the team in points. The dreaded flu bug has reared its ugly head again, this time taking Dennis Seidenberg for a miserable ride, but the team seems to have discovered that quarantine is the key and no one else has fallen prey yet.
In not-so-excellent news, Rod Brind’Amour is dead last in the league with a +/- of -26 (777th, for those who are morbidly interested.) Can you believe that? And in other “no way…seriously?” news, Patrick Eaves scored his first (yes, first) goal of the season on the same night as Staal’s hatter. Remember when everyone was insisting that he was the crown jewel of the Commodore/Stillman trade? Right now, it’s looking as though Joe Corvo’s strong play will render that prediction moot.
The Hurricanes players and staff are aware that this is the time to take control instead of trying to slip quietly into the playoffs as they failed to do last year. A win tonight against the miserable Thrashers, whom the Hurricanes have lost to twice this season, would get things going in the right direction.