The first half of the year wasn’t always so smooth for the Canes, but a season-high four-game winning streak isn’t a bad way to start the second.
That’s exactly what the team is currently riding after last night’s win against New Jersey, which was the official halfway point of the long NHL season. Although it’s an important milestone, when everything is said and done, the month of December will likely be seen as the time when the Canes season took a turn for the best.
Carolina came through that month with a record of 6-4-3, which may not sound too impressive until you consider the quality of the competition and the state of the team entering that month. For the second consecutive season, the Canes stumbled in November and were struggling mightily with their confidence when Paul Maurice took over on December 3.
“I was really concerned about December,” said General Manager Jim Rutherford. “We were playing more of the high-end teams compared with the first two months of the season, and I was very concerned as to whether we would hold our own, and we did. We came through it a little bit above .500 and I thought our game had a little more structure in it.”
Being able to hang with and beat some of the NHL’s best teams in that month, which along with March had more games against teams currently slated to make the playoffs than in any other, seems to have given the team a boost of confidence that they’re now using during their current run of victories.
“I think anytime that you win hockey games, you’re going to be more confident than you have been,” said goaltender Cam Ward, whose consistently strong play has been a big factor in the team’s turnaround. “Just the team chemistry overall has come together, and no one’s getting as frustrated as we had been at the beginning of the year. We’re not panicking or anything like that on the ice. There’s a bunch of skilled players here, and if we play with confidence we’re a very tough team to beat.”
The Canes certainly have been tough to beat lately, as they’ve only lost three of their last 11 games. Those three losses, one against Minnesota and two against Eastern Conference-leading Boston, were basically all one-goal games (Boston added empty netters to win each match-up by a 4-2 score).
Besides getting another crack at the Bruins on Saturday, only two of the remaining 10 games this month are against what one would today call playoff teams – the 17th at Buffalo and the 27th at the New York Rangers. If the Canes continue to play their game, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be carrying an awful lot of momentum down the stretch while solidifying their hold on a playoff berth of their own.
“It’s going to be a fight to the finish to make the playoffs, and any team that gets in the top eight in the east can go to the finals,” said Rutherford. “I believe our team is good enough to do that, but we have to stay healthy, we have to continue to stay as focused as we have been the past month, we have to continue to improve on our game and believe that we can win that way.”
While Maurice has to be pleased with the way things have gone since he took over, he said the biggest test will come if and when the team suffers a setback, something they haven’t done except for a somewhat lackluster post-holiday trip to Atlanta, which the Canes still managed to win.
“Confidence is easy to find when things are going well, but I think where you’ll really see it is the next stretch of adversity that we hit and can we keep it to be a short-term thing,” said Maurice, who is 9-4-3 so far in his second tenure with the Canes.
“If we can get to the point where we have a struggle in a game or two and players reach out to what’s been established and reach out to our foundation to hang on … that’s where your confidence comes from.”
Now that that they seem to be gelling as a unit – line combinations and defensive pairings have been consistent and the team is as healthy as it’s been in almost two years – and the team seems to have the belief that they can beat anyone, the Canes will continue to tweak their game until they hit their peak, something they don’t believe they’ve done quite yet.
“I think as a group we’ve gotten better as we’ve gone forward, but we’ve still got a ways to go and a lot of year left,” said Eric Staal, who has enjoyed a remarkable turnaround of his own in scoring 16 points in his last 14 games. “It’s a good feeling in the room and I think it’s getting better. Guys are excited to get out on the ice and try to win some games.”
“As a team we’re playing a lot better than we were at the start, but with that being said I think we still have another level that we can reach,” added Ward. “It’s a big second half of the year, and if you look at the standings it’s always a tight race and you can’t afford to take a night off because every point is so huge for us.”