RALEIGH, NC—When a team is mathematically eliminated from the National Hockey League playoffs, newspapers put a lower-case “e” in front of the team’s name in the NHL standings.
The Carolina Hurricanes don’t have their “e” yet, but somewhere a typesetter has taken it out of the drawer and polished its leaden face.
Still, there are five games left, including home games Friday and Saturday against Winnipeg and New Jersey, and there are good reasons to go to them.
A win over the Jets on Friday would leapfrog the Canes into third in the Southeast Division. Although this isn’t much consolation for missing the playoff cut, it’s something worth acknowledging. Carolina’s been in the division’s basement almost all year. Beat Winnipeg and they tromp up the stairs to the guest bedroom.
Third place would be significant. The team that Kirk Muller took over at the end of November wasn’t just last in the division; they were nearly last in the entire league. On many nights, the Canes hardly squeaked louder than Paul Maurice’s dry erase markers on the whiteboard that players stared at for long stretches of early season practices. Once Muller woke up those legs, Carolina started competing and winning games in January. They’ve made up a vast stretch of ground, going 18-10-9 since New Year’s Day.
Muller roused captain Eric Staal from slumber as well. Staal will likely finish the year with between 70 and 75 points after a nightmarish start. He’s been one of the game’s highest scorers in 2012, notching 43 points in his last 36 games. Those are numbers in the neighborhood of Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos—the two players most often spoken of in the league MVP debate.
Perhaps most important of all, Muller’s remaking of this team has them having fun again. Under Maurice’s staid stewardship, it could be hard to tell if the team won or lost in the locker room after a game. Now, when they win, the jokes fly. Players have things to say to reporters. No one seems in a hurry to bolt to the parking lot and get away from the rink.
This weekend’s games are important to maintain this loose tone through the last whistle, since this roster will be pretty similar in the fall. General manager Jim Rutherford chose to re-sign impending unrestricted free agents Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu, perhaps ruing the bitter pills he had to swallow named Alexei Ponikarovsky and Tomas Kaberle (please pardon me as I spit on the ground). After the trading deadline passed with nary a deal made, Rutherford talked about the value of continuity and retaining known quantities on the current roster, rather than freeing salary to lavish on free agents who might simply skate lonely circles high in the zone instead of playing actual hockey.
What you can read between those lines is this: The passion and grit that went to Montreal in the person of Erik Cole was sorely missed. It’s the best way to explain the dreadful start to the year.
Let’s hope that Rutherford and Muller figure out how to get the team to show passion and grit in October, rather than January, next season.