Tuesday night’s game against the first-place Columbus Blue Jackets marks the end of the first half of the Carolina Hurricanes’ season. Regardless of the result, the takeaway is similar to so many recent full seasons: Close, but not quite; progress, but not enough.
The good news for the Hurricanes is that they haven’t played their way out of the playoff chase, and are in fact in the thick of it, even if the coagulated standings make it look like they’re closer to the eighth spot than they really are and the pure bad luck of being in the suddenly powerful Metropolitan Division will make things infinitely harder for them.
The Hurricanes went into Monday’s games five points back with two games in hand, with only two teams to pass (the Florida Panthers could make it three with a win Monday, albeit having played two more games), which is a vast improvement on where they were to start the season. Still, given the quality of the division, they have only one route into the playoffs, whereas the Toronto Maple Leafs, just ahead of them, can get in as a wild card or as the third-place team in the Atlantic, possibly with a worse record than the Hurricanes.
Despite their neighboring position in the standings, the very clever hockeyviz.com site still puts Carolina’s playoff chances at 19 percent and Toronto’s at 43 percent. Even within the Metro, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the eighth spot, have a 50 percent shot. That’s how hard it is to move up. Nothing the Hurricanes can do about that. Life isn’t fair, and neither is the NHL’s silly playoff setup or participation point for overtime losers. Until the standings are balanced by giving out three points for a regulation win (or none for an overtime loss), moving up the ladder will continue to be a Sisyphean task.
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If you look only at their record since Nov. 1, the Hurricanes are playing at a 95-point pace, which would not have been enough to make the playoffs last season, and the Metro looks even tougher this season – potentially, four teams could finish with more points than the first-place team in the Atlantic. And thanks to October, they’d still end up with only 91 points, without improvement.
So as good as the Hurricanes have been at late – in addition to that 11-1-1 home record over the past 13, they’re 3-4-1 in their past eight on the road, which isn’t as bad as it looks given the quality of competition – they’re still going to have to pick up the pace quite a bit.
To close the gap, they still need some help, which falls squarely on general manager Ron Francis’ plate. Cam Ward can, but probably shouldn’t, do this alone, having started 16 straight games and 27 of 29. Eddie Lack’s concussion issues appear even worse than his goaltending issues. There has to be a better option out there, even if it means eating Lack’s contract.
Another forward or two would be nice – waiver claim Ty Rattie was worth a gamble, and he’s certainly had chances to score in his two games with the Hurricanes, which may bode well – if there isn’t a bigger deal out there. And a capable veteran, right-shot depth defenseman would be nice, to relieve the Hurricanes of the burden of relying on Ryan Murphy or Klas Dahlbeck when someone’s hurt as well as providing an option beyond Matt Tennyson when circumstances dictate.
The Hurricanes have come a long way since October. The high-flying Blue Jackets – 1-2-0 after their 16-game winning streak – will offer a measuring stick of just how far. The Hurricanes will make the turn within striking distance of the playoffs either way, but the real hard work is just beginning.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock