The Carolina Hurricanes have reached the midpoint of the season, so what do we know?
They’re winless in their last three games and 16-18-7 overall. They’re not in playoff position. They’re not scoring enough goals and have gone without a power-play goal the past eight games. They’re counting on three rookie defensemen.
What’s encouraging about the Canes? They’ve played a better team game the past month. They’re not out of the playoff conversation. The penalty killing has improved. So has the goaltending. Those three rookie D-men – Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce – are proving they can play in the NHL.
Canes coach Bill Peters, asked recently if his team had established an identity, hesitated, saying it was like trying to give yourself a nickname.
“I’d like it to be a puck-possession team that’s dangerous off the rush, that has our D involved, that can skate and hang on to pucks and are hard to play against,” he said. “That’s kind of the direction we’re headed.”
We need to find a way to score (and) we’ve done some different things trying to generate offense. That’s the hard thing in this game right now, to generate offense on a consistent basis.
Canes coach Bill Peters
The Canes took a step back this week with road losses at Edmonton and Vancouver. They were shut out 1-0 in overtime by the Oilers, then lost 3-2 to the Canucks on Wednesday after allowing a power-play goal late in regulation.
Here’s a look after 41 games:
Who can score?
Justin Faulk can. Jeff Skinner has. After that, it’s hit and miss.
Faulk scored his first 12 goals on the power play, then added two at even strength. The defenseman again will is the Canes’ lone All-Star selection.
Skinner has a team-high 15 goals but picked up most of them in a chunk – nine in six games. Elias Lindholm has gone 12 games without a goal despite playing on the top line, and Eric Staal has eight goals for the season, one on the power play.
Forward Phil Di Giuseppe was recalled from the Charlotte Checkers in early December and gave his line, with Skinner and center Victor Rask, some jam. He’s now out with a concussion and Rask was injured Wednesday.
The Canes scored 26 goals in six games last month when Skinner was on his streak. They’ve scored 17 in the past 10 games, have been shut out twice and managed just two shots in the first period against the Canucks.
Don’t blame the rookies on the back end. Hanifin, Slavin and Pesce are moving the puck smartly, playing with poise. Faulk has been Faulk, veteran John-Michael Liles seems rejuvenated – scoring the Canes’ first shorthanded goal Wednesday – and Hainsey’s play has been generally effective.
All six were born in the U.S. – thus their “Red, White & Blue” moniker. All played college hockey, and Hanifin, Slavin and Pesce were in college last year at this time. All have size and don’t lack energy.
“Defensively they play hard,” Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette said Saturday “Not a lot of space.”
The Canes are 8-8-4 at PNC Arena this season, albeit going 4-2-1 since a miserable 5-1 loss to New Jersey on Dec. 3 that was the low point of the season.
The crowds have been sparse – Carolina is last in the NHL in home attendance at 11,153 per game – and the atmosphere in the building is often subdued, but the Canes must find a way to win more on home ice if they’re to contend for a playoff spot.
“The best teams in the league always have a good record at home and are tough to play against at home,” Skinner said.
Net gain or loss?
Goalie Eddie Lack, after going 4-0-2 in his past six starts, was in net Wednesday and took the loss Wednesday against the Canucks. Cam Ward took the overtime loss against the Oilers.
Their season numbers still aren’t good: Ward has a .903 save percentage and Lack .890. But they’ve been better of late and Peters has no complaints, adding, “We take it day by day. Every time we get too far ahead of ourselves it never works, so we’re day to day.”
The Canes were so awful in that Dec. 3 loss to the Devils that three players – including Di Giuseppe and Slavin – were immediately called up from the Checkers of the AHL and haven’t gone back.
The frustration spilled over in the third period of that game when Staal flattened the Devils’ Eric Gelinas with a big hit, and Staal and Faulk were involved in scraps. The Canes have gone 8-5-3 since that game and it could be better – four of the five regulation losses were by one goal while Florida scored a late empty-netter in its 2-0 win.
“We’re starting to play the way we want to play on a consistent basis,” Peters said. “We need to find a way to score (and) we’ve done some different things trying to generate offense. That’s the hard thing in this game right now, to generate offense on a consistent basis.”
Need for a run
The Canes’ longest winning streak this season was three games in late October. The coaches and players believe a good run will come, but when?
“You’re not going to make up ground unless you go 7-2-1 or 8-2 and win the games you’re supposed to win,” Peters said. “If you don’t beat the teams in front of you it’s almost impossible to reel them in. You’ve got to go on a good streak.”
The Columbus Blue Jackets are behind the Canes, and the two face off in a home-and-home, back-to-back set Friday and Saturday – the first game taking place at PNC Arena.
“This is a big stretch for our team, a good chunk of games where we want to get points and get wins,” Staal said.