Luke DeCock

It’s that time of year, when it’s hard to tell whether the Canes are coming or going

New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (30), of Seweden, defend against Carolina Hurricanes right wing Nino Niederreiter (21), of the Czech Republic, while Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton, not shown, scores during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (30), of Seweden, defend against Carolina Hurricanes right wing Nino Niederreiter (21), of the Czech Republic, while Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton, not shown, scores during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The seasons and the years change and, this fall, many of the players as well, but there’s nothing that says Carolina Hurricanes like a bit of November navel-gazing, warranted or not.

With this franchise, perhaps more than some of its peers, there’s a tendency to overreact to individual results, especially at this point of the season. Given the trouble the Hurricanes have historically had getting out of October, that’s not entirely unreasonable, especially the way the NHL standings tend to ossify by mid-November.

So when you take a hot start and follow it with a bit of a muddle, as the Hurricanes have, the mood swings can be dizzying. After Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the woeful New York Rangers extended the Hurricanes’ losing streak to three games, all against divisional opponents, the optimism so redolent around these parts a month ago has been long forgotten.

The Hurricanes walked away with a 47-19 edge in shots on goal and zero points, but they’re still a respectable 9-6-1. The sky is not falling. But it’s also fair to say the Hurricanes are stumbling along at something less than their full potential. Rod Brind’Amour was thrilled with the Hurricanes’ performance. Other than, you know, the goals they didn’t score and the defensive breakdowns they allowed.

“That’s the way it should look, for me,” Brind’Amour said. “We did everything we wanted to do. We just didn’t get the result.”

It’s entirely appropriate, desirable even, to focus on the process and not the results, but when the results aren’t forthcoming, this is where you end up

This dynamic was especially acute coming off Tuesday’s 4-1 loss at the Philadelphia Flyers, a game where the advanced stats disagreed with the optics. In the eternal tug of war between the analytics quants and the scouting department, the Hurricanes passed the math test and flunked the eye test on that night, losing for the sixth time in 10 games after a 5-0-0 start.

All of which left the Hurricanes at a bit of a crossroads Thursday, with the rebuilding Rangers in town, fast and young but not equipped to grind, teams able to do the latter having given the Hurricanes the most trouble in recent days.

That’s a change from last season. With all the turnover and all the injuries, the Hurricanes have had a tough time recapturing the end-to-end hustle that brought them so much success, playing more of a finesse game by necessity with Justin Williams taking his gap year and Jordan Martinook out. Brind’Amour was asked before the game if that alteration in identity was deliberate; he visibly cringed at the question.

It doesn’t help that some of their best players haven’t gotten off to the best of starts, or that Jake Gardiner — who turned the puck over in his own zone for the Rangers’ back-breaking third goal early in the third — is going through the same difficult adjustment to Brind’Amour’s system Dougie Hamilton went through a year ago.

The Hurricanes’ ability to get back to that style, playing fast and aggressive, leaving the opposition gasping for air, is the real litmus test of this early going, more than the results, even. It’s a work in progress, and even on nights when they take advantage of favorable circumstances — at home against a team like the Rangers — they’re not always rewarded.

After getting nothing out of an overwhelmingly dominant first period on Thursday, it took them 31 shots to score on Henrik Lundqvist, and a pair of late-period defensive breakdowns left them trailing 2-1 heading into the third period, a sequence of events so deeply evocative of Bill Peters’ tenure that it ought to have been sponsored by Kinetico.

“We talked after the Philly game what we need to do, and tonight was more the way we needed to play,” said Warren Foegele, who was unable to finish any of his several first-class scoring chances, including a late two-on-one.

“We had a couple mistakes that cost us goals, but we kept shooting pucks, getting on top of their D and working them, and their goalie played really well tonight.”

These are, it goes without saying, the kind of games good teams win, have tucked away in their pocket in April when the stragglers are scrambling for the playoff spots that are left.

But it also goes without saying that even a three-game losing streak — two of them at home against teams unlikely to make the playoffs — isn’t cause for abject panic.

“If we play the way we played tonight,” Jaccob Slavin said, “we’ll win more than we’ll lose.”

The Hurricanes need to convert these opportunities, but it’s equally important for the long term that they recapture their identity. Thursday was a step in that direction. Just not a big enough step.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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