The Carolina Hurricanes went into this season with one, simply stated goal: make the playoffs.
In 2009, when the Canes last appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs, forward Sebastian Aho was 11 years old. Canes coach Bill Peters was in his first season as coach of the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League, where one of his players was 22-year-old forward Bryan Bickell.
As the Canes reached the midway point of this season, they were not in playoff position, although in terms of points-per-game percentage they were eighth in the Eastern Conference. After Tuesday’s 5-4 road loss to Tampa Bay, Carolina (19-15-8) has 46 points. The Pittsburgh Penguins, with 47, held the second wild-card playoff spot and it’s tightly bunched in the standings – the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders each had 46 points after Tuesday’s games.
“I think we know where we’re at and what we are,” Peters said in assessing the first half. “We know the areas we’re strong in and the areas we need to continue to work on and get better at.”
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Here’s a breakdown after the first 41 games, the good and-as-good, and what needs to change in the second half of the season to be a playoff-caliber team:
Improved special teams
Canes general manager Ron Francis likes to use an old hockey gauge for determining special-teams’ success: The combination of power-play percentage and penalty-kill percentage must top 100.
The Canes, through 41 games, had scored on 21 of 131 power-play chances (16 percent) and killed 79 of 100 penalties (79 percent). That’s 95, not good enough.
“Specialty teams have been a little bit of an adventure at times,” Peters said. “We’ve got to get that tightened up for sure.”
The Canes finished fifth in penalty killing last year at 84.5 percent and 17.7 percent on the power play. Odds are, they must approach those numbers again to get into the playoffs.
Keep playing well at home
The Canes played 23 road games in the first half and will have played 25 after games this week against the Lightning and then Washington Capitals.
The math, after that, is favorable for Carolina: 23 home games, 16 away. That includes a run of eight straight home games that begins Jan. 30 against Ottawa and ends Feb. 13 with the Los Angeles Kings.
The Canes are 10-4-4 at PNC Arena this season. If they can maintain something close to that point-percentage at home they should be in good position in April.
The Canes are a good puck-possession team and show up well in most analytics.
Shots against, for example. The Canes, before Tuesday, ranked first in the NHL, allowing 29 shots a game.
Offsetting that is goals allowed per game. The Canes were tied for 20th at 3.0 goals, a reflection on the goaltending, defensive-zone coverage, odd-man rushes allowed and the penalty killing.
Darling’s .893 save percentage, which took another hit Saturday when he was thrust into a 7-1 beating by Boston, remains a major concern. Ward (.911) also can be better.
A championship mentality
Much has been made of the Canes players who already have won Stanley Cup rings and bring a championship mentality to the locker room.
The list: Cam Ward, Justin Williams, Jordan Staal, Teuvo Teravainen, Scott Darling, Marcus Kruger, Joakim Nordstrom, Trevor van Riemsdyk.
Will that matter this year, on this team? It needs to, especially down the stretch of the season when the pressure ratchets up and big games are played.
Williams and Ward won the Cup with Carolina in 2006. There’s much pride in that and their experience must be a factor.
Fire in the belly
Forward Jeff Skinner is a dynamic player, former Calder Trophy winner and a proven NHL scorer. Defenseman Justin Faulk has been an NHL All-Star and a U.S. Olympian. Neither has been in a Stanley Cup playoff game.
Nor are they alone. The Canes’ locker room has several players who should be burning to reach the postseason for the first time – Jaccob Slavin, Victor Rask, Derek Ryan, Noah Hanifin and others.
Everyone in the room wants to be in the playoffs and talks about being in the playoffs. At some point, they have to make it happen.
“The first half of the season was a little up and down,” Aho said. “We played some really good hockey and had some tough games. We’re going in the right direction. It was all right, the first half, but we have to build on it and play even better.”