RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes entered December off a dismal 5-2 loss to New Jersey at PNC Arena and facing a rugged eight-game stretch.
Six of the eight were on the road. The two home games were against the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks.
By any stretch, the eight-game start to the month was a potential season-wrecker. But the Canes went 4-2-2, earning 10 points and waking up Monday in third place in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division, two points ahead of the New York Rangers.
The Canes finished their longest trip of the season with a 3-1 victory Saturday over the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena. The win came against a strong Western Conference team that smacked the Canes 5-2 in October in Raleigh and had suffered just two regulation losses at home in Glendale, Ariz.
“When you look at the standings you have to pick up points wherever you can,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said after the game. “I think it’s the way we won. The last game of a long road trip we fought, we played hard.
“This trip’s not easy. It’s been a big challenge. But they’re playing hard and they’re playing consistent.”
It has helped that goaltender Justin Peters – who may have kept the Canes’ season afloat when goalies Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin both were injured – has continued to play well. Peters started three of the four games on the Western swing and had 37 saves against the Coyotes in being named the game’s first star.
“Justin just keeps ticking along,” Muller said.
Then there’s Jeff Skinner.
Skinner isn’t just hot. He’s sizzling. The winger has scored eight goals in the past seven games, including his first career hat trick, and has had 34 shots on goal.
Skinner has scored third-period goals in each of the past three games. His tumbling shot after Eric Staal’s faceoff win Saturday was the winner against the Coyotes.
“He resembles what our group is about right now as far as staying true to the system,” Muller said. “He’s a goal-scorer. When he gets the opportunity, he’s been capitalizing. He’s really been getting some timely goals for us.”
Skinner has been streaky hot before. As a rookie in 2010-11, when he had 31 goals, he once scored eight times in 10 games.
“I’m getting chances,” Skinner said. “Sometimes that’s the way it goes – it goes in for you. And sometimes it doesn’t.”
The biggest concern for Skinner, in terms of cooling off, may be that the Canes don’t play again until Friday. Another NHL scheduling quirk had Carolina taking Sunday and Monday off. The Canes (14-13-7) will practice for three days before facing the Washington Capitals on Friday at PNC Arena.
There’s nothing the Canes can do but work. The power play continues to be a hit-and-miss situation – with too many misses.
Winger Alexander Semin returned from his concussion issues to play the final two games of the trip, against Calgary and Phoenix. Muller used Semin on Jordan Staal’s line with winger Nathan Gerbe, unwilling to break up the productive top line of Eric Staal, Skinner and winger Tuomo Ruutu.
It’s possible rookie forward Elias Lindholm will be allowed to compete for Sweden in the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, which will be held in Malmo, Sweden. Lindholm was injured Thursday against Calgary and did not play against Phoenix, and a decision on his availability for the World Juniors will be made soon.
As for the goaltending situation, there’s a decision soon to be made. If Khudobin, out since Oct. 13 with an ankle injury, is ready to play, when does he play? And will the Canes keep three goalies on the roster?
There’s been much trade speculation brewing, nearly all of it percolating from Canada, but general manager Jim Rutherford might be willing to make a move.
It’s still December and there’sstill much to be done.
Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip