In the first 14 games of December, the Carolina Hurricanes played seven of eight games against Western Conference opponents.
In the latter half of the month, the Canes will play six straight intraconference games, including three against divisional opponents.
It’s not that points earned from out-of-conference match-ups are of any less importance, but Friday marks the beginning of an important stretch of games that will continue into the new year.
“You approach every game the same way, and I think you should. If you try to approach it some other way that you’re not used to, then you’re doing something you’re not used to, and usually that’s not a good thing,” forward Tuomo Ruutu said. “At the same time, it’s in the back of your mind. You just have to look at the standings to see it.”
The Hurricanes currently sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division with 35 points at 14-13-7. Philadelphia, the New York Rangers and New Jersey each trail the Canes by just a point, and Columbus, who comes to town on Monday, is within striking distance with 32 points.
Above the Canes sit the Washington Capitals with 39 points and the Pittsburgh Penguins in a distant first place with 51 points. Both are opponents the Canes will host in the next week, as three of their next four games are against Metropolitan Division foes.
With five days off in between the Canes’ last game in Phoenix – a rousing 3-1 victory to cap off a four-game road trip – and tomorrow night’s game against Washington, the team has been deliberate and focused in prepping for the upcoming vital stretch of games.
“I think the big focus was just keeping our focus and keeping the energy we had from the road trip,” Muller said. “I think the guys have been going hard and practicing at a high tempo. That part of it was what we wanted to keep going.”
Just how big was that win in Phoenix? It brought the Canes to 4-2-2 in the month of December, and it secured them a .500 record on the road swing.
“It was so big. Looking at our road trip, if you lose that game, it’s a bad road trip. But now it was all right. We were .500,” Ruutu said. “I think we’ve improved a lot, but we still have to find the consistency every night.”
“You want to pick up points where you can,” forward Jeff Skinner said. “It was nice to end it on that note. It was a real solid win where everyone contributed. It’s always nice when you’ve been on the road awhile to come back home with a good feeling.”
The Canes have come back healthy, as well. All previously injured players have been skating with the team at practice this week, including defensemen Brett Bellemore and Mike Komisarek and goaltender Anton Khudobin.
It was announced on Wednesday that rookie forward Elias Lindholm would be loaned to the Swedish team for the upcoming World Junior Championship. Muller said the 19-year-old forward will leave for his home country on Friday.
With the Canes heading into an important stretch healthy and upbeat, President and General Manager Jim Rutherford’s evaluation of the team just a handful of games shy of the official midway point of the season was hopeful.
“There are things that I like and things that I don’t like, but I like more things about this team than I dislike,” he said. “What I see, and I’ve really seen this right from the start, is a team that Kirk has coached as building into a team that can play through different adversities, compared to a horse race where one horse jumps out of the gate real quick and then fades.
“There are two things about this team: it’s being built to understand how to play the game in all parts of the rink, and it’s being built to come together. And I can see both of those things on a week-to-week basis that are continuing to improve,” he continued. “Every team can look back and say we could have gotten points in this game or that game, and every team is dealing with injuries; but I would say, with what we’ve dealt with and how Kirk has gradually brought this team together to gain momentum, we sit in a good spot where we are now.”
A winning record in intraconference games to round out December would likely leave the Canes sitting in an even better spot.
“It’s great that we did what we did (on the road trip), but now the big games – divisional and conference games – are important. It starts tomorrow night,” Muller said. “We’ve got to get that focus back that we had on the trip and get ready to roll.”