Luke DeCock

DeCock: Canes exceed expectations at midpoint of season

At the halfway point of their season, the Carolina Hurricanes have probably met, if not exceeded, preseason expectations. They led the Southeast Division by three points going into Monday’s games, they’re scoring goals in bunches and they’ve managed to soldier on even after a rash of injuries culminated with Cam Ward getting hurt.

It’s a low bar to clear, but this has to rank as one of the Hurricanes’ best first halves in recent years, even if it’s a smaller sample size.

Which isn’t to say all is sunny. The defense still needs help and still turns the puck over too much, the power play has been dismal despite all the firepower brought in over the offseason that has had no trouble producing at even strength and they’ve struggled to generate the kind of scoring depth the Hurricanes desperately need to take advantage of opponents overloading against the Brothers Staal.

Yet as the Hurricanes sit at this moment, awaiting a trip to Washington to play the Capitals on Tuesday, there’s as much to be happy about as there is room for improvement.

“We’re starting to develop a team identity,” Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said. “All these things that we looked at as important when establishing goals, we’re well on our way to accomplishing those. We’ve always felt that we have the talent and ability in this room that when we play our way, the way we can, we have a good chance to win every night and I think we’re showing that.”

The most promising developments are at opposite ends of the rink, where the additions of Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin have had the expected impact on the Hurricanes’ offensive firepower and the loss of Ward hasn’t hurt the Hurricanes yet.

The chemistry between Eric Staal and Semin has developed about as well as possibly could be expected, and the same can be said of Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner. Just as important has been the ability of Jiri Tlusty to be a productive left wing on the Staal-Semin line and a rotation of players, most frequently Patrick Dwyer, to do the same on the right wing of the Skinner-Staal line.

It’s what Jordan Staal expected when he was traded here this summer to join his older brother, if not more. Eric Staal (30 points) is tied for sixth in the NHL in scoring and Tlusty is tied for eighth in goals with 13. Only five teams are scoring more goals per game than the Hurricanes.

“I had high expectations for this team and, offensively, I knew that we had a great group of forwards that could find a way to put the puck in the net,” Jordan Staal said. “With Eric’s line leading the way, the way we’re creating offense and skating and creating turnovers to get goals, it’s a big part of our game.”

The power play hasn’t followed suit, limping along at 14.3 percent, 27th in the NHL, and scoring only 13 goals in 24 games. It has cost the Hurricanes points, most recently Thursday in a 4-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, and there’s no excuse for such a lackluster conversion rate given the talent assembled and how well that talent has been performing five-on-five.

“The one (area) I thought was going to be a real strength is the one where we haven’t connected,” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. “There’s reasons why. We don’t play at a high pace on it. We don’t shoot enough. Not enough traffic. They’re all easy things to resolve.”

It’s clearly fixable, just as Dan Ellis and Justin Peters have so far filled the void left by Ward and Riley Nash has shown signs of stabilizing the third line and energizing Jussi Jokinen’s offensive game by allowing him to move to the wing.

It’s been a good first half for the Hurricanes. There’s no reason why it can’t be a better second half, but there’s no guarantee either.

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