Luke DeCock

DeCock: For Hurricanes, .500 is no magic number

The Carolina Hurricanes' Eric Staal (12) celebrates his goal with Justin Faulk (27) and Kris Versteeg (32) while the Pittsburgh Penguins' Chris Kunitz (14) skates away during the second period.
The Carolina Hurricanes' Eric Staal (12) celebrates his goal with Justin Faulk (27) and Kris Versteeg (32) while the Pittsburgh Penguins' Chris Kunitz (14) skates away during the second period. cseward@newsobserver.com

Because of all the consolation points for losing in overtime or in a shootout, .500 doesn't have the same resonance in the NHL that it does in baseball or football or basketball. Being above .500 can accommodate a far greater degree of mediocrity in hockey than it does in sports that record only wins and losses.

So even though the Carolina Hurricanes went above .500 with a 3-2 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, Justin Faulk had a hard time getting too excited about it, very much aware that at 19-18-7, his team has actually lost six more games than it has won.

“I don't like that number,” Faulk said. “I've heard it talked about too much in my life. It's nice to get above it, but we want to be better than that.”

Still, for a team that hasn't been above .500 since the end of the 2013-14 season, there's nothing wrong about taking a moment to recognize that accomplishment, especially when it represents a degree of momentum the Hurricanes have largely lacked. They have won three games in a row for only the second time this season, and the third win of this stretch came on a night when the opposition actually had more shot attempts and scoring chances, areas where the Hurricanes have typically been on the better side this season.

Cam Ward was a big part of that Tuesday, stopping 23 shots in a tightly played game, including one from Sidney Crosby on his knees 40 feet from the net facing the wrong way that was surprisingly dangerous. Over his past nine starts, Ward has posted a .929 save percentage and 1.66 goals-against average, both a dramatic improvement over his pre-December numbers.

Now the Hurricanes need to make improvement in the numbers that really matter. They got the two points for the win, but ended up giving Pittsburgh a consolation point despite leading 2-0 midway through the second period. That could prove costly, since the Penguins are one of four teams the Hurricanes will have to leapfrog if they're going to make an unlikely postseason run – and all but one have played fewer games than the Hurricanes.

Nevertheless, two points were mandatory against another team mired in the Metropolitan Division morass. Jeff Skinner's overtime power-play goal, off Elias Lindholm's third assist of the night, successfully captured them.

“It's a good feeling,” Skinner said. “We haven't really talked about the standings that much. Going down the stretch, obviously we'll start to look at it.”

When Skinner looks, he'll find even with the traffic jam ahead of them, the Hurricanes are only two points out of a playoff spot – three, really, considering the Hurricanes are unlikely to recover from a minus-15 goal differential – with almost half the season yet to play. As grim as things have been at times, as bad as the goaltending was for long stretches, as ineffective as the offense can be, the Hurricanes have given themselves a chance to play their way back into contention.

Getting above .500 is a start, but only a start. The hard part is going to be moving their name up the standings board that hangs in the locker room, in direct view of captain Eric Staal's locker.

“I've been staring at the standings all year, so yeah, it helps,” Staal said. “We've scraped and clawed to get to .500. Now we have to climb.”

It was already a good day for the Hurricanes, with Rod Brind'Amour's selection to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame announced earlier Tuesday to complete a week that saw radio broadcaster Chuck Kaiton named North Carolina sportscaster of the year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.

Skinner's overtime goal made it a good night for the Hurricanes as well, even if they're going to need many more nights like this to climb over the long list of teams ahead of them.

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

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