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Canes at the Quarter Mark

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes
Michael Smith

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As the second month of the regular season nears an end, the Carolina Hurricanes have reached the quarter mark of the 2014-15 campaign.

(Technically, the exact quarter mark of the season is at the 10-minute mark of the second period on Wed., Nov. 26 in Florida, when the Canes will have played 20.5 games. But, for simplicity’s sake, 20 is a nice number.)

The Canes are 6-11-3 with 15 points, sixth in the Metropolitan Division. October was not so great, as the team went winless in eight games (0-6-2). November has been better; the month began with a six-game point streak (5-0-1), but the Canes have since dropped five of their last six games, all closely-fought, one-goal losses (minus the empty net tally versus San Jose).

“It’s a work in progress,” head coach Bill Peters said. “We’re a little disappointed in this last stretch. You look at the last five games, we’re 1-4, and we’ve lost all one goal games other than the empty netter against San Jose, so we have to find a way to win close games.”

“Considering the start we had, I think we’re showing some development and progress,” forward Riley Nash said. “The last 10 games or so, we’ve been in every game. It’s just a matter of getting on the other side of those one-goal games. That’s the NHL nowadays: figuring out how to win those one-goal games. Like in Colorado, we’ve got to get points out of that one.”

Injuries unfortunately factored into the picture early in the season – really, before the regular season even began. The most notable injury was the broken bone in Jordan Staal’s leg, which has put the center on the shelf for 3-4 months and depleted the team’s depth down the middle. Eric Staal (upper body) and Jeff Skinner (concussion), the Canes’ two top scorers from a season ago, have also each missed time.

As the team has gotten healthier, though, the results have started to come together.

“Getting guys back and figuring out the system, everyone knowing where they need to be and when they need to be there,” Nash said of why the team has seen positive results this month. “Adjusting to that takes a little time. I think we’ve shown that when we play the right way, it works.”

There have been other struggles: Alexander Semin has no goals and just five assists in 15 games, and he’s been a healthy scratch in three games.

“When you play hard, you’re going to get ice time and stay in the lineup. When you don’t, you come out. That’s how that’s going to go,” Peters said. “You’ve got to be an everydayer, and you have to bring it. We need our top-end guys to be top-end guys.”

But where there are struggles, there are also successes.

Cam Ward has been the backbone of the team’s triumphs in November, as he won five straight games to begin the month and has surrendered two goals or less in seven of his 10 starts.

In Jordan Staal’s stead, Riley Nash has stepped into a top-six role and has played in all situations. He is currently the team’s leading scorer with 15 points (4g, 11a) in 20 games.

“If you would have said that before the season, I would have said you were crazy,” Nash said of his leading scorer title. “It doesn’t matter to me as long as we’re winning games. I’m just trying to help the team win in any way possible. I’ve been playing a lot more this year, so that means I should generate more points. The way I look at it, it comes hand-in-hand. If you can help the top line out by contributing on the second line, it just makes our team that much better.”

“He’s been very good. He’s been good in different areas, too,” Peters said of Nash. “On the half-wall on the power play, he’s been good there. He’s been part of our penalty kill unit.”

The Hurricanes have also seen significant contributions from a handful of younger players in the first 20 games. The average age of the team’s opening night lineup was 27.3 years old, 10th youngest in the league. Players such as Zach Boychuk (25), Victor Rask (21) and Chris Terry (25) have made the jump to the NHL, and Elias Lindholm (19), Skinner (22) and Justin Faulk (22) returned one year stronger and wiser.

“It’s a young team, and we’ve shown progress, but now we have to take it a step further and start getting points,” Nash said.

“There’s improvement needed across the board,” Peters said. “We want to get better.”

Carolina has a -12 goal differential, having surrendered an average of three goals per game (23rd in NHL) while scoring an average of 2.4 goals per game (25th in NHL). The Hurricanes rank 12th in the NHL on the power play, converting at a 20 percent clip, a marked improvement from their 28th-ranked man advantage (14.6 percent) from a year ago. The team’s penalty killing efficiency ranks 15th in the league at 81.7 percent.

“We’re in the middle of the pack in both specialty teams. We want to be in the top 10 there,” Peters said. “There’s room for improvement all over in our game, especially in D-zone coverage and through the neutral zone. We need to pick it up a little bit, and if we do that, we’ll be successful.”

Early January will mark the midway point of the regular season, and the Hurricanes realize the challenge in front of them in the next quarter.

“If you’re too far out of it at the halfway point, then it’s pretty tough to get back in the playoff race,” Nash said. “It’s pretty important, these next 20 games, and I think we know that.”

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