Though the Carolina Hurricanes posted their first winning record of the season in January, the team believes there is still room for improvement.
With a record of 5-4-3, January was the Hurricanes’ most successful month of the season. And though 13 of a possible 24 points is an average showing, there is reason for optimism heading into the unofficial second half of the season.
“We’ve been in every game and put forth a better effort most nights, so we want to keep building on that,” forward Eric Staal
said.Turning a Corner
It’s fair to say, at this point, that the Hurricanes have turned the corner in regards to playing head coach Kirk Muller’s system on a more consistent basis. The effort is routinely seen, but the results still aren’t regular, especially on the road where the team has won just two games since Muller has taken over.
|DATE ||OPPONENT ||RESULT |
|JAN.. 3 ||vs. NY ISLANDERS ||4-3 SOL |
|JAN. 6 ||vs. BUFFLAO ||4-2 W |
|JAN. 7 ||at NASHVILLE ||5-2 L |
|JAN. 10 ||vs. PHILADELPHIA ||2-1 L |
|JAN. 12 ||at TAMPA BAY ||5-2 W |
|JAN. 14 ||vs. BOSTON ||4-2 W |
|JAN. 15 ||at WASHINGTON ||2-1 L |
|JAN. 17 ||at PITTSBURGH ||2-1 SOL |
|JAN. 20 ||vs. WASHINGTON ||3-0 W |
|JAN. 21 ||at NY ISLANDERS ||2-1 OTL |
|JAN. 23 ||vs. WINNIPEG ||2-1 W |
|JAN. 31 ||at NY ISLANDERS ||5-2 L |
“We’re starting to feel comfortable with our game and the way we’re asked to play. Guys are knowing their roles a bit better, and we’ve been more defined as far as what’s needed out of certain players,” Staal said. “With the start that we had, the coaching change and the transition to a new system, there’s a lot that goes along with it. Now, it’s a little bit calmer as far as feeling more comfortable about where we’re at and what’s expected.”
“I think everyone is really identifying a role, taking pride in it and bringing it to the table on a more consistent basis,” Muller said.
Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford agrees with that assessment of the team, saying the road wins will fall into place as long as the team continues to put forth the work-ethic that Muller’s system requires.
“We’ve played some good games on the road. It just is that we’ve had a little better fortune at home,” Rutherford said. “That fortune can turn to the road games. The structure is there now, and the confidence has built within the players against whatever team we’re playing.”Resurgence of the Captain and the Warden
After an over-scrutinized yet admittedly slow start, Staal has settled into a groove. A point-per-game player in January, he led the team in scoring in the first month of the New Year with 12 points (2g, 10a) and leads the team in overall scoring with 37 points (11g, 26a).Cam Ward
posted unmatched statistics in January: he allowed just 20 goals in 11 games (average of 1.82 per game) and made 339 saves on 359 shots, good for a .944 save percentage. Even with Staal’s revival, Ward has been arguably better.
“Everybody says the same thing: your best players have to be your best players. That’s what’s happening now,” Rutherford said. “These guys are making a difference in most games. It’s good to watch, and that’s what their experience and leadership really is. Other players follow. In Eric’s case, not only is he playing well on the ice, but if you watch him in practice, he’s as a hard-working guy as anybody.”
“Our leaders are leading,” Muller said. “Cam has really stepped up and is playing really well in net, which is great to see. Staal has been leading the charge up front.”
Even though the All-Star Break was a welcome break to both – Staal has either participated in All-Star Weekend or the Olympics every year since the lockout – these are the numbers that earn Staal and Ward perennial League-wide recognition.Getting Healthy
The Hurricanes received a kick to their lineup when Jeff Skinner
returned on Jan. 15. Skinner missed 16 games with a concussion. In his first five games back, he quickly returned to form as he scored twice and recorded an assist.
“It’s real encouraging. It didn’t take him long, really,” Rutheford said. “In the overall picture, to have two 19-year-olds like Jeff [Skinner] and Justin [Faulk] is very encouraging for us because very few teams have two young players as good as that in their lineup that have an impact on the game every night. I’m very excited about these two players and our future.”
The extended All-Star Break allowed others time to heal from various minor injuries. Chad LaRose
missed six games with an upper-body injury in the middle of the month. In his second game back, his leg was cut by a skate. Though he left the game and did not return, the break allotted him the needed time to mend. Jerome Samson
also returned to full health over the break and was returned to Charlotte on Tuesday.Jaroslav Spacek
missed seven games after taking a puck to the face. While he was healthy for Tuesday’s game against New York, Muller decided to hold him out to run him through a few more practices.Brian Boucher
, who has missed 24 games with a lower-body injury, skated for the first time on Monday. Though he is still a way off from returning to the active roster, getting back onto the ice is an important marker in his recovery process.
On the other hand, Joni Pitkanen
is still in the midst of long-term recovery. Pitkanen suffered a concussion in early December and has missed the team’s last 23 games since then. On Jan. 3, Pitkanen underwent knee surgery, something that had been nagging the defenseman; with him already sidelined, the team decided to take care of it while they could.
“We’re always cautious on concussions, and we’re not going to hurry him back,” Rutherford said. “He’ll come along as his body decides he will.”
So, while the Hurricanes are still fighting a couple of injuries, they’re trending in the direction of getting healthy. This will be important down the stretch for the team to establish a foundation heading into next season.The Road Ahead
With exactly 30 games remaining on the schedule, over half of which will be played in March, the team knows its chances of making the playoffs are slim. Undeterred, the Canes aim to win as many games as possible and see where it all falls.
“I think it’s important that we come down with a good, competitive stretch from here to the end,” Muller said. “We can’t do anything about the other teams and their wins and losses. I want our team to find ways to pick up points game in and game out, play well consistently, be competitive, take it one game at a time and see what happens as we move along.”
Considering where the team is in the standings, Rutherford has already started making roster moves. Alexei Ponikarovsky was sent to New Jersey after the game on Jan. 20 in exchange for minor league defenseman Joe Sova and a draft pick.
“We are at the point now where there are other guys that have stepped forward,” Rutherford said. “It was starting to get jammed up with players that could play that role, and we had the opportunity to move him so we did.”
Following the All-Star Break, Rutherford locked in defenseman Tim Gleason
for four more years. Gleason’s name was regularly mentioned in trade rumors, and Tuomo Ruutu
’s name remains in the mix. Rutherford insists, however, that rumors are just rumors.
“There are rumors about who’s being traded and who’s going where, but at this point, I haven’t said that I’m trading anybody,” he said.
Eleven games are on the docket for February, including a three-game West-moving-East road swing while the circus is in town. The team will close out the month with four straight home games which will continue into March and amount to a six-game homestand. That period could prove to be pivotal in a push for the playoffs.
“There’s no use in trying to count out the games and say, ‘We have to win this one and this one,’” Rutherford said. “It’s just a matter of building on what we’ve got. Whether we make the playoffs or not, we’re building towards the future under Kirk and establishing a foundation for this team.”January record:
5-4-3, 13 pointsOverall record:
18-25-9, 45 points, 5th in Southeast Division, 15th in Eastern Conference (For full standings, click here