So this was the measuring stick, halfway into the season, against the best team in the conference. The Carolina Hurricanes were at home, where they have been nothing short of stellar for two months. The Columbus Blue Jackets were only three games removed from a 16-game winning streak that rocketed them to the top of the standings.
How far have the Hurricanes come since October? Commendably far. Far enough to beat the best, on one Tuesday night in January at least, with a topsy-turvy 5-3 win over the Blue Jackets.
Forty-one games in, 41 to go, and the Hurricanes are within shouting distance of a playoff spot. Combine the win with the Buffalo Sabres’ 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Hurricanes are three points back with two games in hand.
Not bad for a team that started 2-4-2 and looked dead in the water at the end of October. The Hurricanes, after knocking off the Blue Jackets, are very much alive.
“Especially the start we had, we didn’t put ourselves in a great position at the start,” Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner said. “To battle back and get into the thick of things is good, but the job’s only half done. We’ve got a lot of hockey left, so we’ve got to keep pressing, keep building on the good things in our game.”
The Hurricanes let the Blue Jackets skate circles around them in the first period, then finally took advantage of Columbus backup Anton Forsberg – making his first NHL start of the season, the 19th backup the Hurricanes have faced in 41 games – while weathering a rare off night from Cam Ward, who gave up three goals that ranged from fluky to bad on the spectrum, depending on perspective.
A dead-legged first period that was bad – Cam Atkinson stuffed the puck in at the post when Ward lost track of it behind the net – could have been worse. The Blue Jackets appeared to score late, but Ward swept the puck out of the net, the referee only saw the puck sitting on the right side of the goal line and there was never a replay good enough to overturn his call. That was the unquestioned highlight of the first 20 minutes, an opposing goal that wasn’t.
But Skinner scored to start the second and triggered Derek Ryan’s goal to put the Hurricanes in the lead and Brock McGinn beat Forsberg, and if Ward hadn’t allowed a couple more questionable goals – one that fluttered off his shoulder, another that skittled through him on a two-on-one – the Hurricanes would have taken the lead into the third. Making his 17th straight start, maybe Ward is starting to wear down, or maybe it was just bad luck. He did leave the morning skate early after taking a shot off an unprotected part of his leg, which may be the most likely explanation.
As it was, the Canes took the lead early in the third when an Elias Lindholm shot hit a Columbus defenseman and Staal’s stick — “I just kind of stood there,” Staal said — and there wasn’t much Forsberg could have done about that. Tack on an empty-netter, and the Hurricanes finished the first half in good shape, considering how they started it.
“There are 41 games left, a lot of points on the table,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. “At some time, we’re going to have to get on a nice little continuous streak.”
All of which left one awkward, unavoidable question: Where is everyone?
The Hurricanes came in with wins in 11 of their previous 13 at home, they’re closing in on a playoff spot, they’re playing (other than the first period) an exciting brand of hockey, and Wake and Durham county schools are closed again on Wednesday. But the announced attendance was 9,351, and it looked as if there was maybe two-thirds of that in PNC Arena.
It’s been a long time since the Hurricanes packed this building on a regular basis, and even longer since they made the playoffs. Fans naturally stayed away when the atmosphere and hockey were lacking. But this is the best Hurricanes team in a while, with Skinner at the top of his game, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen capable of conjuring magic out of nothing, Ward plugging away and the most underrated defensive pairing in the game in Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce.
If you tuned out, that’s fine. The Hurricanes pushed fans’ patience to the absolute limit with listless, losing hockey for years. But that’s changing, finally. The Hurricanes are in the playoff hunt, officially. It’s time to tune back in.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock