One week ago, it looked like the Carolina Hurricanes’ season was on the verge of flatlining.
After a Monday night loss in Anaheim, the club had dropped four straight games and eight of ten, regressing to 0-2-2 on their pivotal six-game road trip and hitting the NHL .500 mark again for the first time in exactly one month.
The Hurricanes followed up that seemingly season-defining skid with their first three-game winning streak of the year, wherein they captured big victories in Vegas, Buffalo, and back in Raleigh against Columbus over the span of just five days.
At this point, nothing this team does surprises me anymore, and that includes what has been a batshit crazy month of December, in which the Hurricanes failed to win in regulation until their ninth game, yet they still accumulated 56% of the available points in that span and now find themselves just four points back of the Eastern Conference’s Wild Card teams - the Islanders and Rangers - with a game in hand on both of them.
The vibe surrounding this organization changes more than your clothes, with expectations for the team ranging from “Playoff bound, baby!” to “Hopefully Rasmus Dahlin likes barbecue and disappointment...” on any given day, which is wholly understandable considering the lackluster hockey that has been played in Raleigh over the past eight years.
You can never be too sure with the Carolina Hurricanes. If you give them an inch of trust, they might just take a mile of your sanity.
For that reason, a streak of three consecutive wins should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, there are legitimate reasons to think that maybe the Canes have turned a corner.
Here are this week’s Quick Whistles.
With Cam Ward playing at an increasingly acceptable level and giving the Hurricanes chances to win as of late, Scott Darling needed a gem on Saturday.
The struggling first-year starter had his best performance as a Hurricane, stopping 35 of 36 shots against a division-leading Jackets club and ending a 0-3-1 stretch wherein he posted an .867 save percentage.
He has had some great games this season. In fact, he had two very good starts against that same Columbus team in the first two months of the season (10/10 and 11/28), but he never looked as calm, focused, poised, and dominant as he did on Saturday.
He didn’t allow the dreaded soft goal(s) that has haunted him all year, his rebound control was excellent, he made big saves at big moments, and he controlled the game with his puck handling and decision making, covering pucks to get timely whistles. He was just phenomenal from start to finish, playing with a level of confidence and focus that we had yet to see out of him.
If the Hurricanes are going to finish within a stone’s throw of the playoffs, let alone make it to the East’s elite eight in April, they need good goaltending and they need it on a consistent basis. Cam Ward, as a starter, doesn’t give them that luxury, but Scott Darling might.
If his strong, game-deciding effort against the Blue Jackets is a sign of things to come, then the Canes might be in very good shape. It is still very important to remember that he is on a new team, in a new area, communicating with new defenders, learning a new system from a new coaching staff, and is in the process of making a massive transition into a new role with lofty expectations.
The talent is absolutely there, but he has to be locked in every night in order to be THE guy on this team. He won’t see 35 shots every night, so he has to find ways to get engaged in the game on nights when he only has to stop 20-25 pucks, and when he has to see 35+ shots, he’ll have to steal some games.
I still believe that he will do that.
Even if you don’t, you gotta love his enthusiasm. #FirstOfMany
Everything we’ve seen from Darling suggests he is all about this team and all about winning. He has accepted all the criticism for every bad game, even when he has been horribly let down by his teammates, and taken very little credit for every good game.
Quick note on Noah Hanifin...
After netting the eventual game-winning goal in the second period on Saturday, the third-year blueliner is up to six goals in 32 games this season, all of which have been scored at even strength.
In his first two NHL seasons (160 games), he scored eight goals, with just five coming at even strength.
He has been the Hurricanes’ best defenseman for the better part of two months and there is no sign of him slowing down.
One of the more aggravating lingering issues that the Hurricanes have had is their apparent lack of desperation.
Regardless of the cause of the issue, be it not buying into the system or taking their foot off the gas or not being prepared, Brock McGinn has not been a part of that problem.
Over the summer, the 2012 second-round pick signed his first one-way deal as a pro hockey player, locking him up for two seasons at a negligible cap hit just under $900,000. Right now, that deal is looking like one of the biggest steals of the Ron Francis era.
His 15 points in 31 games put him on a 40-point pace over 82 games. He had 20 points in 78 NHL games entering this season.
McGinn shouldn’t be relied upon for his offense, which is fine because his contributions go way beyond point totals.
I don’t think that anyone on this Hurricanes roster brings it the way he does on a nightly basis. He’s fast, fearless, strong, relentless, and he is showing that he go to the net and produce offense. The big hits that he punishes opponents with act as sparks for his team, and he isn’t an easy out when the gloves come off, just ask Jared McCann.
He has played at a high level all season, showing he can be more than just a fourth-line energy player and taking the steps necessary to establish himself as an important piece in the team’s future plans.
Josh Jooris was an under-the-radar July 1 signing for Francis - a one-year deal that clocked in at $775,000.
The former Coyote, Ranger, and Flame has gained plenty of experience as a 12th/13th forward in the NHL, compiling 173 games played over the past three seasons, and he has been effective in that role for Carolina.
As of late, he and veteran in the organization Phil di Giuseppe have been rotating in and out on the fourth line, and that experiment has been relatively successful. The fourth line has been solid for most of the season and they’ve put together some crucial team-lifting shifts.
Jooris has played a big role in that. The 27-year-old’s versatility has been a huge selling point for Bill Peters as he can be utilized both on the wing and in the middle. He has had numerous difference-making plays based solely on his effort.
Here’s one example from the clips that I captured on Saturday.
He deflected the east-west pass in the Columbus zone and followed up on it to break up the clearing attempt and maintain puck possession for his team in the offensive zone. That play led to the Blue Jackets getting trapped in their own end, and Pierre-Luc Dubois got called for holding about 40 seconds later.
All of that happened after he jumped up the ice on the rush, drove to the front of the net, and very nearly scored.
I thought that Jooris played his best game as a Hurricane against the Blue Jackets, even taking into account his two-goal surge in Toronto in October.
As unfathomable as it may sound given how turbulent the season has been, the Carolina Hurricanes are in position to control their playoff fate as the second half of the season approaches.
Four points out of a playoff spot just 39% through their season, Carolina’s early run of games on the road and/or against Western Conference teams sets them up for a lot of home games, especially leading into the trade deadline when they will play 11 of 12 at PNC Arena from January 30 to February 23.
They also have four-game (and in a couple of cases five-game) sets to play against the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, and New Jersey Devils through the end of the year to go with a pair of games against the Rangers and Islanders.
The reality of this team’s playoff dreams will come down to how well they play - and more importantly, how many games they win - against those teams within the division.
Last season, they finished at or above .500 against the Atlantic (13-5-6), Central (6-5-2), and Pacific (6-6-2). They went 11-15-4 against Metropolitan Division teams, which ultimately played a deciding role in their 12th-place finish in the Eastern Conference.
While the first part of their schedule has been a grind, the second half of the year will be equally as tough. They will be forced to play a lot of games against the league’s toughest division (the one they play in) and finishing below .500 will almost certainly result in them not playing hockey in mid-April.
As it stands now, Carolina is 3-3-2 against teams in their division. We’ll see how that holds up when they actually play a team that’s not Columbus, New York, or the other New York.
They’ll have to grind out low-scoring games and find ways to win. They did that against the Blue Jackets on Saturday, which is a great sign, but it also wouldn’t be the first time that a big win didn’t carry over to the next game for this team.
It’s go time for the Hurricanes, a team that needs to keep building momentum. Tuesday’s matinee in Toronto against what will surely be an angry Leafs team looking to end their concerning slump will be a big test.