They’re halfway there, but they’re not living on a prayer.
With 24 games played in a compressed 48-game schedule, the Carolina Hurricanes are 14-9-1 and sit atop the Southeast Division with 29 points.
Among the highlights in the first half of the season were a three-game winning streak and a six-game point streak at the tail end of a season-long road trip and a four-game winning streak snapped just recently. The team has established winning records both at home and on the road, going 7-5-0 at PNC Arena and 7-4-1 out of town.
“We’ve played well. We’ve had some consistent points where we’ve come to play for several games in a row,” defenseman Tim Gleason said. “I think that’s key in a shortened season, and that’s something we have to continue. That will get us to the point where we want to be.”
Where the team wants to be, of course, is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009. It’s also helped to be the team being chased rather than the one doing the chasing, as the Canes climbed to the top of the division in early February, relenting the lead just once since then.
“It certainly is better, I suppose. It feels good. But it’s no less exhausting, and it still requires the preparation,” defenseman Jay Harrison said after Saturday’s game. “You can’t lose points, whether you’re ahead or behind. It’s the same race, and we’re all going to the same place. It’s where we finish, not how we get there.”
“In the past, we’ve always seemed to be looking up, and it’s a different situation as of today, but it’s something we have to keep plugging away at,” Gleason said. “It’s the best league in the world for a reason. Any given night, every team comes to play, so every point is important.”
Propelling the Hurricanes in the standings has been their offense, as the team ranks fourth in the league in goals-for per game (3.12). Winners of five of their last six games, the Hurricanes have averaged 4.17 goals per game in that stretch.
The top line of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty has led the offensive charge, totaling 77 points (32g, 45a) this season.
Definitively, the team has also showed signs of improvement. After the first seven games of the season, the goal of the team was to bring their goals-against per game below three. The Canes now sit near the middle of the pack at 20th in the league, averaging 2.88 goals-against per game.
“I think we’ve been pretty consistent with the work ethic and the tempo we want to play. I’m pleased that we’re on the right track with goals against, especially having to use three goalies,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “The penalty killing has made a major turn, and it’s going well. A lot of upswing on a lot of areas like that is a positive.”
As Muller pointed out, the team defense has had to rally around the loss of the Cam Ward, who is expected to miss 6-8 weeks with a knee injury. While many in the national press wrote the team off after Ward went down, the Canes have responded by winning two of three games.
“They don’t have to be the star of the game or a top player,” Muller said of his goaltending tandem. “They just have to give us a chance to win, and I think they have.”
In other positions where injuries have depleted the roster, the Canes have seen prospects from Charlotte step in rather seamlessly. As the schedule doesn’t loosen up from here on out, this will continue to be a necessity.
“I think the big thing is finding ways to win,” Muller said. “This first half with all the injuries we’ve had, different guys popping in and all that.”
As time passes, though, so do injuries. The Hurricanes might have forward Tuomo Ruutu back earlier than expected, as he skated this morning with fellow Finn Joni Pitkanen before the team practice. Muller said Ruutu could be cleared to return with the team as early as this week. Then, it’s only a matter of time before he returns to the lineup.
In the next 48 days, the Hurricanes will play their remaining 24 regular-season games, averaging out to a game every other day. The team is facing three straight divisional games ahead this week, and they will play six of their next nine games in the Southeast. Carolina knows that winning the division is the best way into the postseason, but the team is taking it one game at a time.
“You don’t have time to think about the past game. You just think about the game ahead because it’s a quick turnaround,” Gleason said. “You’re playing every other night, so in a way it’s physically demanding, but your focus has to be there every night.”
When asked to describe his team in the first half of the season, Muller used the word “resilient,” evident in way the team has battled through various challenges this season, including a slow start, injuries and a long road trip just six games into the 48-game campaign.
“We started off with new people and played real poorly the first two games of the year,” he said. “It was really just the leaders taking the team, going out, playing, getting in a consistent groove and rolling along from there.”