Luke DeCock

Even as Canes’ road remains difficult, new reason for optimism – DeCock

This is what the Hurricanes do. We've seen it all before, too many times. As soon as the pressure's off, as soon as there's nothing left on the line, the Canes turn into world-beaters.

And yet there was still something in Tuesday’s' blowout of the Flyers that suggested there's still some reason for optimism, even as the math remains stacked up against the Hurricanes. They'll need a miracle to make the playoffs – and missing for an eighth straight season is really going to sting when the Oilers, their seven-year partners in pathos, make it – but at least they have left the door open for a miracle.

The Flyers apparently spent the All-Star break perfecting their neutral-effort trap, but the Hurricanes played well enough to beat a much more engaged opponent, riding Sebastian Aho's first career hat trick – the first by a Hurricanes rookie since Erik Cole in 2001 and eighth in franchise history – to a 5-1 win over the listless Flyers.

So two points in the books, which is good, and against the team that went into Tuesday holding the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, which is also good, but all coming on the heels of a five-game losing streak that saw the Hurricanes lose touch with the playoff contenders, very possibly permanently. Tuesday's win helps close that gap, but it's still yawning. It was a must-win for sure, but only because they're all must-wins from here on in.

This could be a new beginning to a very old story, another late-season run to polish another wasted season. Usually, the Hurricanes don't start their surge until after the trade deadline, when the season is truly over. This time, they have at least left themselves time for a miracle, however unlikely.

They also have Aho, who took a month to score his first NHL goal but now has 12 in the past 24 games. It's hard to make the jump from Finland to the NHL, especially at 19, and it was unrealistic to expect Aho to make it seamlessly. He has always played the right way; now, 49 games in, he's starting to hone his scoring touch, and the results are impressive. In any other year, without Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine and Mitch Marner and Zach Werenski, he'd already be in the Calder Trophy conversation. He still has a chance to play his way into it.

Also positive: A power-play that scored at PNC Arena for the first time since Dec. 16 and has now generated goals in three of the past four games after going seven without.

The Hurricanes looked like a very tired team going into the break, with a lot of young players not quite yet prepared for the physical or mental grind of the season. The timing of the break couldn't have been better, not because of the Canes' five-game losing streak, but because of how they were losing games.

“100 percent – probably better mentally than physically,” Peters said. “It's hard. You could see it in the dressing room. They come back, they've got some energy, they're talking about fly fishing, all kinds of stuff. It's outstanding.”

A few days off can be a remarkable tonic, and not just for the young guys. No fluky goals, no bad goals for Cam Ward on Tuesday, just a late power-play goal that was well fashioned and two huge saves to keep it 1-0 in the first period.

This is the first of five games before their union-mandated off week, with those Oilers in town Friday. If they can maintain this kind of effort through that stretch, they'll get another break before the stretch run.

“It's an interesting schedule,” Hurricanes forward Jordan Staal said. “We decided as a group to just focus on these five games here and then worry about the rest. We started off with a good first one and we'll continue to build off of that.”

One game down, four to go. If the Hurricanes play like they did Tuesday, they will go into the next break in much better shape. And if the Hurricanes can keep this up for the final 33 games, they will have a shot to play their way back into it.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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