While November was a month to forget for the Carolina Hurricanes, February was the polar opposite.
With 19 games remaining in what has been a roller coaster season, the Canes posted a 6-1-4 record in the second month of the calendar year. It was the team’s most successful month of the season, by far, and an illustration of the team’s potential.
“That’s what we’re about right now – the guys are playing for each other,” said head coach Kirk Muller.
When asked about the team’s success in February, rookie defenseman Justin Faulk
touched on a subject that has been a Muller staple: no passengers. Everyone has been ready to play night in and night out, Faulk said.
“We’ve quietly been putting points together,” Muller said. “We’ve lost a few points here and there for different reasons, but every time it’s something that we’re learning from. We’re in every game, and that’s all I ask. They try, and they compete.”
Building to the Present
|DATE ||OPPONENT ||RESULT |
|FEB. 2 ||at BOSTON ||3-0 W |
|FEB. 4 ||vs. LOS ANGELES ||2-1 W |
|FEB. 8 ||at ANAHEIM ||3-2 OTL |
|FEB. 10 ||at COLORADO ||4-3 OTL |
|FEB. 13 ||at MONTREAL ||5-3 W |
|FEB. 17 ||vs. SAN JOSE ||3-2 W |
|FEB. 18 ||at NY ISLANDERS ||4-3 L |
|FEB. 20 ||vs. WASHINGTON ||5-0 W |
|FEB. 23 ||vs. ANAHEIM ||3-2 SOL |
|FEB. 25 ||vs. FLORIDA ||3-2 SOL |
|FEB. 28 ||vs. NASHVILLE ||4-3 W |
When Muller took over head coaching duties at the end of November, results were not instantaneous. No one expected they would be.
December was a transition period; Muller began instituting his system, the Canes installed another new face in John MacLean behind the bench and the team got acclimated to these changes.
January was about application. The team was winning regularly at home, and they gained 13 of a possible 24 points. But, they knew they could be better.
February was about results. Points in 10 of 11 games – 16 of a possible 22 points – made February the Canes’ best month of the season. They were undefeated in regulation at home (4-0-2) and dropped just a game in regulation the road (2-1-2). They recorded two shutouts and won three games by a one-goal differential.
“We’re getting a full 60 minutes out of everybody,” Faulk said. “Earlier in the year, maybe it’d be tight in the third and we’d lose it. Now, you’re seeing that it’s tight in the third and we’re battling through it. We’re starting to be the team that comes out on top a little bit more at the end of the game.
“It’s definitely huge that we get a good start to games. We’ve been scoring first a little bit, but even if the other team scores, we get one back pretty quick. That gives everyone confidence, which the team really builds off.”
In their last 16 home games, the Canes are 11-2-3. In that stretch, they have a plus-16 goal differential (47 goals for and 31 goals against). The Canes have allowed two goals or fewer in 16 of their last 23 since the New Year.
Because of this effort, the team has started to see tangible results, as they’ve jumped a couple of places in the standings. Quietly, they’ve become a tough team to face.
“What I really love more than anything right now is the way the guys are finding a way to win and get points,” Muller said. “They’re giving it everything they’ve got. They lay everything out on the table at the end of the night. Some nights it’s not good enough, and some nights it is. I can live with that if they compete and play hard on a consistent level, which they’ve been doing.”The First Line
Much was written and whispered in the early season about Eric Staal
He’s emphatically left that behind, becoming the team’s leading scorer in January and putting forth an even better February.
In 11 games, Staal recorded 17 points (8g, 9a) and was plus-11. He had a trio of three-point nights and is currently riding a nine-game point streak, matching linemate Jiri Tlusty
’s team-leading streak snapped on the 28th.
“Stats are stats. He took it on the chin earlier on with the plus/minus, but he’s got a lot of pride. He’s fought right back,” Muller said. “What I like about him is it’s the way he’s playing and getting points. He’s earning it, he’s playing hard and he can play with anybody.
“The good players, what they do is they make guys around them better. That’s what he’s done. He’s taken this team and led them, and it doesn’t matter who I throw with him. He’s made them better players.”
One of those players Staal has made better is Tlusty. (That’s not to take anything away from Tlusty; he clearly has the skill to bury his chances, which is why he was a first-round draft pick.) The winger, who has flipped between the right and left sides, recorded 10 points (4g, 6a) and a plus-9 rating in February. On the opposite wing, Tuomo Ruutu
had 4 points (2g, 2a) and a plus-6 rating in five games before going down with an injury. Had he stayed healthy and continued on that pace, he would have finished with approximately 9 points in the month. That’s the unfettered, first-line production the Canes need.
Even in Ruutu’s absence, Staal and Tlusty continue to produce. Their chemistry is evident, and with a guy in Jerome Samson
who is not afraid to shoot the puck (he averaged 2.3 per game in February) alongside them, they’ve become a regular target for opposing team’s shutdown lines.Skating Wounded
Injuries have unfortunately beleaguered the Hurricanes this season. To date, the team has 157 man-games lost, and that number will continue to climb with five players currently out of the lineup.
Goaltender Brian Boucher
has missed 35 games with a lower-body injury, defenseman Joni Pitkanen
has missed 34 games with a concussion and knee injury, Ruutu has missed six games with an upper-body injury, forward Chad LaRose
has missed six games with an upper-body injury and forward Patrick Dwyer
has missed a game with a lower-body injury.
Of this quintet, LaRose and Boucher appear the closest to returning to the lineup. Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford said LaRose – who has been in and out of team practices for the last week – is probably a week away. LaRose has only played in six of the last 20 games due to varying injuries.
Boucher has been practicing with the team since Feb. 22. Muller said Boucher is “close” and added that he’d like to get Boucher some game action when he does return. Muller hinted at a conditioning stint in Charlotte to get Boucher back in the rhythm of a game, which differs greatly from set drills in practice.
Pitkanen and Ruutu are a couple of weeks away from returning to the lineup, Rutheford said on Monday. Dwyer is expected to miss a week or two.
The good news is that, despite the injuries, the Canes have had numerous players seize the opportunity for ice time in lieu of these absences.
Though Cam Ward
is healthy and playing again, Justin Peters
proved more than capable to handle starting duties for just over a week’s time. In four starts, Peters recorded a 2-0-2 record, averaged 1.5 goals against per game and recorded his first NHL shutout in a 17-save win against Washington.
“Petey (Peters) stepped in and played very well for us,” Faulk said. “I think it was good to see everyone was going and ready to battle.”
Young guys from Charlotte – Samson, Drayson Bowman
and Zach Boychuk
– have blended into the lineup nicely. Though they haven’t really stood out on the scoresheet, their ability to step in without disrupting existing chemistry has patched the holes left by injuries.
And, there are even guys playing out of position. Natural defenseman Derek Joslin
has assumed the role of fourth-line winger for the last six games. Not only is this giving the 24-year-old a chance to get ice time after being scratched or in Charlotte for 17 of 24 games prior, but it’s a role he’s embraced.
“We’re not a team right now that has 12 guys in place. You’ve got to earn your ice time every day,” Muller said. “Guys are doing different roles that change weekly. We’ve got different personnel each night. Guys are being really versatile. I’d love to have 12 guys in set lines, but that’s not what we’re about right now.”
The team might not get fully healthy this season, but they can take solace in the knowledge that they have capable legs when needed.The Tough Test Ahead
The Hurricanes will begin the month of March by wrapping up their season-long six-game homestand. At 2-0-2 thus far in the homestand, the Canes will have to get through the top team in the Eastern Conference and a team they trail by three points in the standings.
And it doesn’t get any easier.
From there, the team embarks on a five-game road swing that will take them up the East coast through Washington and Buffalo, down to Florida through Tampa Bay and Sunrise and then back up North to New York once again.
That’s just the start of it.
Two brief pit stops in Raleigh precede a Midwestern back-to-back in Minnesota and Winnipeg and a three-game roadie through Columbus, Detroit and Toronto.
In all, the Canes will log 16 games in the 31 days of March. Ten of those 16 will be played away from the RBC Center (soon-to-be PNC Arena), and 10 of the 16 are in back-to-back scenarios.
If there is a litmus test, March is it for the Hurricanes.
“It’s just going to be a mental grind,” Faulk said. “If everyone is ready to compete every day, things should go pretty well for us.”
Even after Muller took over as head coach, the Canes continued to struggle on the road; they won just two of 12 away games in December and January, earning points in four others. In February, the team finished with a 2-1-2 road record.
“We’re not worried about going in on the road anymore,” Faulk said. “For awhile, we were a team that just couldn’t get it done on the road, even though we were doing well at home. We’re starting to see that we’re into games more now on the road.”
Asked about the month ahead, Muller was cautious. Though the team is realistic about its playoff hopes, they know their fate come April will be ultimately decided in March.
“We’ll see,” Muller said, smiling.
“It’s going to be a marathon and a tough battle each night,” he said. “We’ll see who is going to dig down in the trenches, and it’s going to tell a lot about our hockey club.”February record:
6-1-4, 16 pointsOverall record:
24-26-13, 61 points, 5th in Southeast Division, 13th in Eastern Conference (For full standings, click here