RALEIGH — As Jim Rutherford sees it, this could be the crucial month for the Carolina Hurricanes.
"The key, for me, is to get through December," Rutherford, the Hurricanes' general manager, said in an interview Wednesday. "I like our team. I have a strong feeling we can be a second-half team.
"We have new players adjusting to systems and new teammates, and first-year players who are getting more adjusted. So the key, as always, is to get through the holidays and be in a solid place and get on a run in the second half."
The Canes, who play eight of 12 games on the road this month, ended November with a 10-11-3 record and in ninth place in the NHL's Eastern Conference, three points out of playoff position. They did it despite an unusual and brutal schedule that exasperated coach Paul Maurice to the point he used an equine expletive to describe it Monday after Carolina's 4-1 loss to Dallas Stars.
"It's challenging," Maurice said Wednesday, finding another word. "Some of it is the way it falls. You happen to hit a bunch of division leaders in a tough stretch of hockey for you.
"It won't be an excuse in the end. I think it has had an effect on where we are right now. The concern is you don't want to lose a lot of confidence when you [play] the top-end teams for a long stretch, and you have tendency to do that."
A year ago, the Hurricanes were 5-17-5 as December began, a wretched start that drained their confidence and in the end wrecked their playoff chances. Rutherford said then the goal was to be around .500 by Christmas time, but the Canes didn't come close to meeting that goal.
Defenseman Tim Gleason would prefer not to wait until the second half this season to make a move.
"We're in that position where we're either going to break away and go up the standings or the possibly the other way," Gleason said. "To get to where we want to be, we need to win four or five games in a row. If you don't do that throughout the year you're not going to make it [to the playoffs]. We need to put a streak of games together, and more than once.
"You can only do so much talking. You've just got to do it."
Gleason, an alternate captain, said the Canes still are searching for a team identity. A part of that, he noted, was having new players on the team, but that feeling-out process can only last so long.
"We're at the 25-game mark. Everybody is pretty used to each other," Gleason said.
The Hurricanes have been generally healthy, with just four man games lost to injury. They also got a big November from captain Eric Staal, who had nine goals and 12 assists in the month.
The Canes are officially 5-5-1 at home and 5-6-2 on the road, including one "home" and "road" win in the two-game sweep of the Minnesota Wild in Finland. Having eight road games in December may not be a bad thing, Rutherford said.
"We've played pretty well on the road," he said. "I'm more concerned about our play at home. We need more wins than we've been able to get."
The Hurricanes are winless in their last three games at the RBC Center and 1-3-1 in the last five. The three regulation losses were to quality teams - Philadelphia, Washington and Dallas - but points can be precious come early April.
The loss to the Stars came in the second game of a back-to-back set, after a 3-2 shootout loss to the Capitals in Washington. It also was Carolina's fourth game in six days.
"After four in six, we didn't have any gas left in the tank," Rutherford said. "Unfortunately, it seems like we've caught a few of those games at home in front of our fans. We need to get things going at home."
The Hurricanes, after a day off Tuesday, put in a strenuous, physical practice Wednesday at the RBC Center. Forward Erik Cole was missing, but Maurice said he will be back for today's workout as the Canes prepare to host the Colorado Avalanche on Friday.
Carolina has three days between games this week, and will have five days next week. Again, a scheduling quirk.
"I think we're still in good enough shape that our destiny is still ours," Maurice said of the Canes' position. "We need to get going here and get some wins and get some confidence. ...
"Our schedule, it gets better here in the next little while. There won't be any excuse for fatigue because we have enough rest days in-between."
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