No one knew what to expect, how the Carolina Hurricanes would respond, how the rest of their season would unfold.
The Canes first traded away their captain, Eric Staal. Next, they dealt veteran forward Kris Versteeg. A day later, veteran defenseman John-Michael Liles.
All-Star defenseman Justin Faulk was injured and out of the lineup. Forward Andrej Nestrasil had been lost for the season with a fractured vertebra.
As February turned into March, the Canes had a different team makeup and anything seemed possible, including a quick nose dive in the standings. That hasn’t happened, with the Canes going 6-2-6 since the Feb. 29 trade deadline.
Avoid some of the overtime and shootout losses – the Canes scored 12 goals in the six games in March – and they would be closer to the Philadelphia Flyers, who hold the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 89 points. But there were just two regulation losses in March and their competitiveness has not waned.
“This team continues to grow and develop and mature and figure it out,” Canes coach Bill Peters said Thursday after a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers.
In the course of the season, Peters has allowed rookie defensemen Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce to find their way – play a lot of minutes, make mistakes, correct them, move on. It has been quite a learning curve, and the grind of the season has been tough.
And not just on the rookie D-men. The Canes went into Thursday’s game with a lineup of 11 players who are 24 or younger – Hanifin the youngest at 19.
“Guys are hitting the wall right now, too,” Peters said. “You can see it, I can see it. I know the tendencies. Mental mistakes. It’s starting to happen.
“But the growth amongst our group, from training camp to now, has been very good. Our growth amongst our young guys has been outstanding and our veteran leadership continues to be very good.”
With Staal’s departure, no one was named captain. Jordan Staal continues to be a presence, on the ice and in the locker room. Faulk returned to the lineup March 24 after missing 18 of 19 games, and Jeff Skinner has played his best hockey of the season since the trade deadline.
Skinner scored his 27th goal Thursday and has six goals and eight assists in the past 15 games. His plus-7 plus/minus rating in the last 15 games has him plus-2 for the season.
“He’s an offensive type guy and he’s dynamic offensively,” Peters said. “He scores in different ways. Earlier in the year we looked at some of the goals from his rookie season and lot were in and around the blue paint and he was tenacious on pucks. He’s back to being that.”
Skinner was on the ice in the final minute of regulation, with Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist out of net for sixth attacker and New York flooding the Carolina zone. That’s a show of trust from the coach.
The Rangers couldn’t get the tying goal. It was a disappointing end for Eric Staal, who hoped to win in his return to PNC Arena, on what was an emotional night.
Staal and the Rangers still need a victory to secure a playoff spot but should get it. And Staal said he admires how the Canes have fared since the decision was made by general manager Ron Francis to become a seller at the deadline and look to add assets with the trades.
“I think the way that they play and Bill (Peters) has them playing has enabled them to be competitive,” Staal said. “They’re resilient. I’m sure they would have liked to have had the extra points that they lost in overtime and shootouts, but the way Bill has this team playing I’m not surprised they’ve been competitive the whole time.”
The Canes (34-28-16) have four games remaining, hosting the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday. They will continue to recall and reassign players to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL – forwards Derek Ryan and Sergey Tolchinsky were sent back to the Checkers on Friday – while trying to win more games, build for the future.
“A lot of young guys have come in and played well,” Jordan Staal said. “There’s lots of energy in the room, a lot of guys who want to show what they can do. It makes for a fun finish to the season.
“We’re going to continue to build a team that’s hard to play against. That’s been our goal all season long.”