Forty-one games down, 41 to go.
The Carolina Hurricanes reached the halfway mark of the 2014-15 regular season with a 5-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.
Though the positive result that it was, it wasn’t exactly representative of the first 41 games.
It was the first time all season that the Hurricanes had their full complement of players, including forwards Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin. It was also the team’s second-highest offensive output in a game this season, that coming after a prolonged stretch in which the Canes struggled to score more than two goals in a given game.
But in evaluating the team’s first-half performance, that win is of chief importance to head coach Bill Peters because it’s the most recent.
“Obviously we’ve gotten better as we’ve gone along,” he said after Friday’s practice at PNC Arena. “I thought we were good last night, and that’s the most important thing: to live in the present with the lineup we have and the options we have available. I liked the fact that we got to see Sems and Jordan together for the first time and spread out some of the offensive firepower.”
What happened, happened. And what happened in the first 41 games wasn’t all great: the Canes won just 13 games, and with 30 points, they find themselves at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and 29th in the league. There was a winless October (0-6-2) and a season-high six-game losing streak in December.
But while the team’s 13-24-4 record paints an accurate picture of the first half of the season, it also fails to recognize the positives and areas of growth the team has made.
“We’re better than our record. There’s no question about that,” Peters said. “But we have to own our work; that’s us. We’ve got a long way to go. The record is how we played in the first half. We weren’t good enough early in the year, and we’ve missed some opportunities to have points.”
Through the tough stretches of hockey, though, the room never splintered, and that’s a testament to the leadership core – a letter sewn on the sweater or otherwise – that has been assembled.
“The veteran leadership group has done a good job through the tough times. They stayed with it,” Peters said. “It wasn’t like we were getting blown out. There were a couple games we didn’t compete hard enough and weren’t happy with our effort, but every time that we’ve had a good effort from our group, we’ve been right in games no matter who it’s against. That’s given us hope.”
Both on the individual and collective level, a number of encouraging aspects can be gleaned from the team’s initial 41 games.
Cam Ward has had a resurgent season, posting a 2.36 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage in 29 games; since the beginning of November, Ward has a goals-against average of 2.09 and a save percentage of .925. Justin Faulk leads team defensemen in goals (7) and points (24) and ranks second on the team in scoring. Eric Staal leads the team in goals (12) and points (25) and has scored a goal in five of his last six games. Victor Rask is emerging as a legitimate NHL center. The fourth line is beginning to form an identity.
The penalty kill hasn’t allowed a goal in nine games, killing off 26 consecutive penalties; it ranks fifth in the NHL at 86.6 percent. The power play has ticked up nearly four percentage points since last season, and the team has scored three times (essentially four, if you consider the situation of Eric Staal’s wraparound goal on Thursday night) on the man advantage in the last two games.
“There have been a lot of positives, to be honest with you,” Peters said. “Things that we thought we needed to address, we have.”
The Canes will continue to address a number of aspects of their game, namely five-on-five scoring. The team has scored just 55 of its 82 goals for at five-on-five, which ranks last in the league.
“That’s the next one. That’s the thing we have to work on,” Peters said. “There are a lot of things we can do better and improve on.”
Considering the Canes’ position in the standings, personnel changes are likely looming on the horizon.
“I think every team that is going to be out of a playoff spot is going to be making moves,” Peters said. “There’s a business side of this game, too, but that’s upstairs. That’s not down here. I’m just going to coach the group we have.”
The group the Canes currently have is the one they were projected to have at the beginning of the season and ultimately didn’t have until 41 games in. How this group performs will continue to be assessed in the coming weeks, but the ultimate goal remains constant.
“My job is to win as many games in the final 41 as we can and make it hard on everybody. That’s everybody’s obligation in the National League. I don’t know anybody who goes into a game not expecting to win,” Peters said. “We expect to win every game we play, and we expect to get better every day we come to the rink. That’s not going to change.”