Carolina Hurricanes Report (Dec. 18): Comebacks Fueling Winning Streak

Recovering from a two-goal deficit at the second intermission a game, much less a road game within the division, is always tough to do. Doing it twice in two days, though, is unheard of.

That’s what the Carolina Hurricanes have done, though, recovering from a 3-0 deficit during the first period and a 3-1 score at the end of the second period against Florida on Wednesday and coming back from a 2-0 deficit at the second break in Atlanta Thursday night.

Amazingly, they were the first two times the ‘Canes had won this season when trailing at the second intermission, and they cap off the Hurricanes first three-game winning streak of the season; all three wins having come on the road. Carolina actually has managed to earn a point in four games in a row, despite scoring not a single goal in the first period in any game.

Through six games in December, including five games away from Raleigh, the ‘Canes have earned nine of 12 possible points and pulled within four points of a playoff spot with as many as four games in hand (fewer games played) over other teams within the top eight.

Player-by-Player Breakdown

Despite being pulled less than two minutes into the game against Florida, Cam Ward has been the Hurricanes’ best player during the stretch, stopping 28 of 29 shots (96.6 percent) on December 10th vs. Dallas, 38 of 39 (97.4 percent) on December 11th in St. Louis, and a whopping 45 of 47 (95.7 percent) this past Thursday against the Thrashers.

For the year, Ward is 10th with 10 wins, sixth with 1,473 minutes on the ice, seventh with a .925 save percentage, and third with 776 saves to date.

Carolina’s defense has also been improving. After giving up three or more goals nine out of 14 games between October 20 and November 13, a brutal stretch that prompted GM Jim Rutherford to go out and trade problematic defenseman Anton Babchuk to Calgary for gritty ‘D’-man Ian White, they’ve really stiffened up as of late.

In terms of scoring, team captain Eric Staal has been pulling away from the pack. He has 13 goals (tied for 20th in the league) and 30 total points, ranking 25th. Staal also leads the team in powerplay goals (four), shorthanded goals (one, Patrick Dwyer scored the other), and game-winning goals (three). He stopped a four-game scoreless skid with two points the last two games.

Eight points behind him is Jeff Skinner, who continues to impress, leading all rookies in points with 22 and assists with 14. He recorded two assists in Wednesday’s win in BankAtlantic Center.

Just trailing Skinner is Jussi Jokinen with 21 points and Tuomo Ruutu with 20. The two have combined for six game-winning goals, and two more shootout-deciding ones, this season. While Jokinen has not scored a goal in eight straight games, an uncharacteristic streak for him, his fellow Finn has two goals, two assists, and a plus-two rating the past three games and continues to lead all ‘Canes in hits with 110, ranking third in the NHL.

Also from Finland is Joni Pitkanen, who leads all Hurricanes defensemen with 17 points, 15 of them being assists, and has rebounded from last year’s minus-11 total to currently place second on the team in +/- at plus-six and first on the squad in blocked shots with 55.

The only other player beating Pitkanen in +/- is Brandon Sutter, who’s having another fine season after last year’s 21-goal performance. Sutter, who’s cousin Brett recently entered the Carolina organization during the Babchuk-for-White deal, has seven goals, 12 points, and a plus-nine rating.

Also placing well in the +/- game, which was a problem for the ‘Canes last year, are Sergei Samsonov (plus-three; last season: minus-15), who won the shootout in Atlanta on his first attempt of the season, Erik Cole (plus-four; last season: minus-nine), who got the ‘Canes comeback against the Panthers started, and Jamie McBain (plus-five), who scored his first goal of the season against Florida.

The former-Ducks duo of Ryan Carter, who was acquired in a trade for Stephan Chaput, and Troy Bodie, who was claimed off waivers, that have begun to make up the previously-nonexistant checking line have also been solid lately, combining for three points and a plus-three rating over their last five games. Bodie, on his own, made quite a statement Thursday, engaging in a rather intense fight defending Skinner, who was being pushed around.
Analyzing the Numbers

Despite some subtle improvements, the Hurricanes continue to be incredibly awful at faceoffs. They sit at 41.6 percent as a whole, Staal and Sutter, the top two faceoff-takers, coming it at 44.2 percent and 41.1 percent, respectively. The team is dead last by over three percent, as they have been for quite a long time.

The ‘Canes are also near the bottom of the league in terms of outshooting their opponents (only 10 times have they done that) and scoring first (only 12 times). They should start doing it more, though. They are a respectable 6-4-0 when outshooting opponents and a very impressive 10-0-2 when scoring first, compared to 4-12-2 when allowing the first goal.

Carolina continues to be very disciplined as a team, taking an average of only 10 penalty minutes a game, the fourth-lowest total, while drawing the eighth-most powerplay opportunities. The special teams, a year-in, year-out issue, do continue to waste the advantage, though.

The powerplay jumped up to 18th following a 3-for-3 effort November 26th in Boston, but has now slipped to 25th and rank second in powerplay opportunities squandered. The penalty kill is even worse, as it’s still ranked 27th despite some recent improvement.

The team has been fairly good in some other categories. They’re 13th in takeaways, 22nd in giveaways (it’s good to be lowly ranked in that regard), and 10th in hits, a remarkable statistic considering the ‘Canes are the second-lightest and second-shortest team in the NHL.

Until the past week, shootout have been a problem. The team had lost four shootouts in a row since winning their first one in just their second overall game, specialist Jussi Jokinen hadn’t scored on an attempt since November 19, 2009, and another specialist Patrick O’Sullivan was claimed off waivers by Minnesota. However, the Hurricanes experience in them (they’ve been to a league-leading seven total, six of which having come in their last 12 games) has finally paid off, as they won their last two against St. Louis and Atlanta, with Jokinen scoring in both.

Injury Update

After a dreadfully injury-filled early ’09-’10 season, the Hurricanes have been very healthy this fall, with just eight man-games lost due to injury. That’s an astounding number compared to most teams.

They have fallen a little off their guard lately, though. Bryan Rodney was called up for the most recent back-to-back after Jay Harrison went down with a short-term injury, and with Jiri Tlusty now injured for up to two weeks, Zach Boychuk was recalled for his much-delayed season debut.

Charlotte Checkers Check-In

After a slow start, the Hurricanes AHL affiliate has settled in in their new home, posting an 11-3-1 record since November 6th. They’ve reached or topped three goals 11 of those 14 games, and put up a jaw-dropping 10 goals in one contest on December 6th against Syracuse.

The Checkers are 15-9-4 overall, totaling up to 34 points (two more than the ‘Canes, for that matter, with two fewer games played). Those numbers put them in third in the eight-team East Division, sixth overall in the Eastern Conference, and 13th in the league.

Zach Boychuk leads in the team in overall points with 32 in 28 games, tied for the second-most in the AHL. Samson is 11th in the league and second on the team with 29, also leading the team with 15 goals, while other team leaders Chris Terry and Oskar Osala have 24 and 23 points, respectively. The surprise of the year, so far, is Jacob McFlikier, who has 13 goals, 24 points, and a team-leading plus-12 rating.

Charlotte has also been solid defending the net, as Mike Murphy and Justin Pogge have split the starts with 15 each. Murphy is 8-4-2 with a 2.69 goals-against average and .917 save percentage while Pogge is 7-6-1 with a 2.84 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.

If those statistics don’t interest you enough, though, you can always check out this  hilarious commercial made by Checkers players Michal Jordan, Mike Murphy, and Riley Nash.

Upcoming Schedule

Carolina will return home to the RBC Center today to take on Anaheim (17-14-4) for their first home game in over two weeks. They’ll visit Tampa Bay (17-10-4) next Monday for their first meeting against the divisional opponent in a must-watch game, then come back to Raleigh two days before Christmas to meet up against with Montreal (19-11-2).

The Sunday one day after the 25th will be the date of yet another meeting with Washington, the final home game against the Capitals this year and the fourth of six overall meetings; the Caps won all of the first three meetings. Carolina will then finish out the 2010 calendar year with two more back-to-back road games, this time in Canada; Toronto on the 28th and Ottawa on the 29th.

In January, the Hurricanes will finally get to spend a little more time at home while they play eight of their next 13 after the turn of the year in the state’s capital.

While there is still a lot ahead for this young Hurricanes team, it’s clear that great goaltending from Ward, a balanced offense, and a defense that’s beginning to find an identity is really helping Carolina climb back into the playoff race much earlier than usual.

Cheers for the holidays, Caniacs, and let’s hope the Hurricanes can keep coming back in the third period like they did this week.

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