It has indeed been a happy new year for the Carolina Hurricanes, who are unbeaten in three games since the beginning of 2014 and are riding a four-game winning streak, dating back to a dramatic come-from-behind victory on New Year’s Eve.
That win, in which the Canes scored four times in the third period to erase a three-goal deficit and secured two points in overtime, was pegged as a potential turning point.
Since then, the Hurricanes have rattled off three additional wins in a row, each by a margin of one goal. The streak has vaulted them to fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, just a point back of a playoff spot.
“I think the result is coming through now. We did say before, when we went on the west coast trip, we battled for every point and I thought we played really well out there. We came back, and I thought we played some good hockey after that, but we just beat ourselves, particularly in the Columbus game,” said head coach Kirk Muller, referring to the game on Dec. 23 in which the Canes coughed up a lead in the last four minutes of the game. “I think we’ve been playing some pretty darn good hockey lately. But it’s a game of small margin right now with all one goal games. Now we’re finally starting to play well with the lead.”
Despite a number of injuries to the ranks, the Hurricanes have seen a few notable contributions that have directly affected their recent success.
After missing 32 games with an ankle injury, goaltender Anton Khudobin has returned to the crease and won three consecutive games, stopping 107 of 113 shots faced in that stretch. He’s 5-0-0 on the season with a 1.99 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage. After being activated from injured reserve, Khudobin started in two straight games for the Charlotte Checkers, stopping 77 of 83 shots in that stint.
“I was just really, really pumped before the first game (back),” Khudobin said after Sunday’s game, in which he made 31 saves on 32 shots. “When you didn’t play for two-and-a-half months … the first game in the AHL, I felt like I couldn’t stop the pucks but after, I figured out how to do it. I remembered again.”
Jeff Skinner has continued his dominance of the stat sheet, as he’s scored 16 goals in his last 16 games, dating back to Dec. 3. In that same stretch, Skinner has posted five multi-goal games, including two hat tricks. The 21-year-old forward leads the team with 20 goals and ranks second in team-scoring with 33 points (20g, 13a).
“Skins is starting to find his game and his identity,” Muller said. “He’s playing off of everybody, he’s relaxed and he’s not worried about yapping back at referees or players. He’s staying away from all the junk that goes on in the game. He’s focused, and he’s maturing.”
In Sunday’s win over Nashville, especially, it was important to be able to roll four lines consistently, as Eric Staal missed his first game due to injury since Feb. 26, 2011, depleting the team’s depth down the middle. Skinner and Ruutu handled first-line center business with relative ease, and Manny Malhotra and Brett Sutter provided capable depth support when called upon.
“What I really like in the last few games … our third and fourth line right now has really stepped up. Now what we have going is momentum,” Muller said. “So after our first two lines go running, instead of a little bit of a lapse, our third line is coming out with authority in the game. We’re able to build momentum in games, which we weren’t able to do before.”
The Canes will look to extend their season-high four game winning streak when they visit Buffalo on Tuesday. They will once again be without the services of Staal, who has missed just 13 games due to injury in his entire career.
“All the things came up negative, so it’s just a matter of day-by-day now, getting better,” Muller said of Staal, who has a lower-body injury.
The trip will mark the first journey back to Buffalo for former Sabres Andrej Sekera and Nathan Gerbe.
“There are always changes. The easy thing to do is say, oh, it didn’t work out in one place because of whatever. They key is that when at athlete gets the opportunity to move on and has a new start, does he take advantage of that?” Muller said. “Lots of times, you go to a new place and get a new opportunity. Both (Sekera and Gerbe) have really excelled beyond expectations and taken advantage of it.”
Jiri Tlusty (appendectomy) and Riley Nash (lower body) skated on Monday, but don’t expect to see them back in the lineup just quite yet. Jay Harrison, who was activated from injured reserve on Sunday, also skated. Muller wouldn’t commit to a starting goaltender or potential lineup changes.
“We’re just game-by-game,” he said. “If you don’t focus on that night’s game, you’re giving yourself bad odds of doing well. Anyone can beat anybody now. That’s the NHL.”