Canes finish off 'interesting' first half of season

calexander@newsobserver.comJanuary 3, 2014 

— The Carolina Hurricanes have reached the midpoint of their season, still with questions to be answered and personnel decisions to be made.

After wins against the Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals this week, the Canes have a 16-16-9 record after 41 games. After Thursday’s games, they were sixth in the NHL’s tightly bunched Metropolitan Division with 41 points but three points out of third place and playoff position.

“It’s been an interesting first half,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said Friday. “We had nine, 10 new guys in our lineup this year. That’s almost half the team of new personnel that tried to jell together. You incorporate injuries (and) we’ve never had a consistent lineup.

“So for me it’s been a process of taking it day by day of building the (team) together and going through the adversity of injuries and things like that. We went through a process where we weren’t scoring. Now, I don’t think anyone says we have a problem scoring goals. So overall we’re giving ourselves a good opportunity to win hockey games right now.”

Jeff Skinner has been the catalyst the past two games. The left winger scored twice Tuesday against the Canadiens in a 5-4 overtime win, then three times Thursday in the 4-3 road victory over the Caps, including the overtime winner.

Skinner was not named one of the NHL’s top three stars for December despite scoring 12 goals, tied for first in the league. But add in the hat trick – his second in less than a month – to open 2014 and he may have worked his way into consideration for the Canadian Olympic team, which will be announced Tuesday.

“Goal scorers can go in streaks and he’s certainly on a nice streak,” Muller said.

Skinner now has 19 goals in 30 games, having missed 11 games with a hand injury in late-October and November. Asked Thursday if he has ever had a hotter streak in the NHL or felt more confident with the puck on his stick, he smiled and said, “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Hopefully, I can keep it going as long as I can.”

Injuries were a factor in the first half. In a span of 11 days in October, the Canes lost goalies Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin. Forward Alexander Semin missed 12 games after a concussion. Defenseman Jay Harrison is recovering from a concussion and center Riley Nash from a lower-body injury.

Jiri Tlusty wasn’t injured but remains sidelined after having an emergency appendectomy just before Christmas.

General manager Jim Rutherford had made two trades in the past week and may make more. He dealt fourth-line forward Kevin Westgarth to Calgary, then defenseman Tim Gleason to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Canes still need to resolve their goaltending situation. It’s possible either Khudobin or Justin Peters could be traded when Ward returns from a lower-body injury.

“Two things we need to get better at is special teams and not beating ourselves,” Muller said. “Discipline is going to have to be better in the second half – the penalties we take. And just playing the game the right way when we have the lead so that we can walk away with a point or two.”

The Canes, through Thursday, were 25th in power-play percentage despite being fifth in power-play opportunities. They were 22nd in penalty killing but led the NHL in shorthanded goals with seven, all on the road.

Carolina is first in takeaways with 421. With the addition of veteran center Manny Malhotra, it has bolstered its faceoff percentage and is 15th at 50.8 percent.

One priority this season was lowering goals-against. The Canes are allowing 2.88 per game after giving up 3.31 last season, when they were 29th in the NHL.

The Canes, who face the New York Islanders on Saturday, have beaten the Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks this season. They’ve now swept all three games from the Caps, a Metro Division rival, at the Verizon Center.

“We have a good team,” defenseman Justin Faulk said. “We definitely can play with any team in the league, I think. We have proven that in certain games.

“I think every team knows what it can be and wants to be. It’s a matter of coming in and putting in the work and showing up ready to play every game, every practice, so we can achieve that success or goal we have as a team.”

The goal is the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Canes have not been a part of the postseason since 2009.

“A couple of trades have been made (and) we’ve settled some people down a little bit,” Muller said. “We’re a better team now than when we started the season.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945 Twitter: @ice_chip

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