As has been the case for most of the season, the Hurricanes continue to hover right around .500. While the team lost both its games this weekend, they came away with two points via two shootout losses. At 9-9-2, Carolina has 20 points in 20 games but remains in the thick of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, which is littered with mediocre teams.
The Canes now have some time before their next game, which is Wednesday against the NHL's top team, the Washington Capitals. Here are three observations from the last two outings.
1. With two overtime games, the Hurricanes got an extra long look at new defenseman Ian White, and the early impressions were positive. White, who logged more than 53 total minutes in the back-to-back outings, showed how he can be the stabilizing presence Carolina needs on the back end. In his own zone, he seemingly always makes the right play — it's not always pretty, but he has a knack for chipping the puck past opponents or making the correct pass to make sure he clears the zone. On offense, he owns a deceptively hard shot and, unlike Anton Babchuk whom he replaced, has a quick, decisive release. That ability was illustrated on his secondary assist on Patrick Dwyer's goal against Pittsburgh.
Troy Bodie, the other new Manitoba-born face, played well in very limited minutes Friday, but was a scratch against the Predators. With Patrick O`Sullivan failing to stand out — coach Paul Maurice gave him a huge opportunity as the third shooter in Saturday's shootout, which he could not convert — the writing could be on the wall for O’Sullivan, and Bodie could become a fourth line regular.
2. Carolina continues to have breakaway issues, whether it be during the game — Sergei Samsonov's out-of-the-penalty-box chance Saturday — or in the shootouts. While Samsonov's chance was a nice stop by Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, it seems that too often the Hurricanes are out-thinking themselves in trying to finish a one-on-one with the goalie. A note to the Canes: take a page out of Dwyer's book and sometimes shoot rather than deke.
3. Cam Ward looks no worse for wear after getting the hook in back-to-back games last week. The Carolina goaltender has bounced back from those two performances by allowing just one goal in each of his last two, stopping 49 of 51 shots against Ottawa and Nashville. Factor in that 13 of the 33 goals he's allowed have been on the penalty kill, and you can get an appreciation for just how good Ward has been this season. Ward should be in the thick of the race a spot in the All-Star Game if he continues playing this well.
4. Chad LaRose had a rough two nights. On Friday, he nearly got his first career power play goal, but hit the post. Against Nashville, LaRose's attempted pass in the Carolina zone was intercepted and led to the Predators’ lone goal. After piling up four points against Ottawa, LaRose was minus-1 in both games and held without a point. The first line as a whole was unproductive in the two games, with Staal registering the lone point on an assist on Jussi Jokinen's game-tying goal against Pittsburgh with Justin Peters pulled from the net. With the Canes’ 2A and 2B lines — centered by Brandon Sutter and Tuomo Ruutu — each getting about 15 to 16 minutes a night, the first line needs to be more productive for the Canes to win games, otherwise Maurice would be wise to cut the top line's time a little and give more to his other two scoring lines, which haven proven they, too, can score in bunches.
5. As for the two second lines — it's impossible to distinguish one from the other as being more productive. Sutter is quietly putting together another solid season. He's on pace for about 40 points and has been a defensive ace — shown in his team-best plus-9. Dwyer has brought a consistency you don't often see from a player with as little NHL experience as he has, and Jokinen looks to be heating up after a slow start.
Ruutu has been surprisingly good on the forecheck and has a team-high 75 hits. Erik Cole continues to look rejuvenated, and he was key Carolina's lone goal Saturday, crashing the net to help distract Rinne from Joni Pitkanen's bouncing shot. And Jeff Skinner finally seems to be shaking off the doldrums of his mini-slump, scoring the lone shootout marker Saturday and having a few very good chances, particularly against the Preds. There’s still work to be done — Jokinen's rightful home is probably alongside Staal, and the fourth line continues to be a work in progress — but Maurice has been assembled the kind of balanced attack that has served Carolina well in the past. If the team can add consistency to the mix, the Hurricanes could be capable of stringing together several wins in a row regardless of the opponent.