Following three months of .500 hockey, the Carolina Hurricanes knew they needed a big January to put themselves back in the thick of the playoff picture.
And they did just that.
In 14 January games – two of which were rescheduled due to a winter storm – the Canes posted a 10-4-0 record, their second-best January mark in franchise history (13-1-0 in 2005-06) and their first 10-win month since March 2009. The month included a five-game winning streak dating back to Dec. 31 and a four-game winning streak in the latter half of January.
“We wanted to pick up points where we could. As an overall game, regardless of our record, it was a good month with some consistent hockey and a lot of hockey, at times,” forward Eric Staal said. “It’s something we need to build on and follow up.”
The team’s play culminated in a statement-making 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues, one of the NHL’s best teams record-wise who had dropped just 11 games in regulation coming into the Jan. 31 match-up. The Canes put forth one of their most complete 60-minute efforts of the season from the top line to Manny Malhotra’s third line – which checked the Blues’ top line – to the defense to the goaltending.
|DATE ||OPPONENT ||RESULT |
|JAN. 2 ||at WASHINGTON ||4-3 W (OT) |
|JAN. 4 ||at NY ISLANDERS ||3-2 W |
|JAN. 5 ||vs. NASHVILLE ||2-1 W |
|JAN. 9 ||vs. TORONTO ||6-1 W |
|JAN. 10 ||at COLUMBUS ||3-0 L |
|JAN. 13 ||vs. CALGARY ||2-0 L |
|JAN. 18 ||vs. FLORIDA ||3-2 W |
|JAN. 19 ||vs. TAMPA BAY ||5-3 L |
|JAN. 22 ||at PHILADELPHIA ||3-2 W |
|JAN. 23 ||at BUFFALO ||5-3 W |
|JAN. 25 ||vs. OTTAWA ||6-3 W |
|JAN. 27 ||vs. COLUMBUS ||3-2 W |
|JAN. 28 ||at MONTREAL ||3-0 L |
|JAN. 31 ||vs. ST. LOUIS ||3-1 W |
“That’s sort of like a collection of a lot of good things recently in the month of January. You take the pieces from here, here and here, and you put it all together to have that complete game against St. Louis. I’m just really pleased with their focus and effort. They executed the whole plan really well for 60 minutes,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “We’ve been able to do it against the top teams. Now we have to continue to do it consistently.”
Making New Year’s Eve Matter
The message coming out of the Hurricanes’ dramatic, come-from-behind 5-4 overtime victory over the Montreal Canadiens on New Year’s Eve was that the team now needed to carry that momentum into 2014 for the win to be a potential turning point.
Fourteen games later, it would certainly appear as if the team made that game matter. The Canes followed it up with four straight wins to begin January, and a pair of shutout losses in the middle of the month didn’t stop them from compiling another winning streak after that.
“At that point, we had a decision to make with our group. We came out and delivered there in the third period at home. We created energy. Momentum is a big thing, and if you can create it, you want to hold onto it as long as you can. We did it that night and followed it up with some great hockey after that,” Staal said, looking back on the New Year’s Eve game. “Now it’s about staying level-headed and playing consistently regardless of the situation in games and finding ways to win. That’s what good teams do.”
The team has maintained its flair for the dramatic since then, as well. On Jan. 27, down 2-0 to a Metropolitan Division foe in the Columbus Blue Jackets heading into the third period of a game that had playoff standings implications, the Canes rallied back with three goals in as many minutes to secure a 3-2 victory.
“We had a great month, yet we’re still in the pack,” Muller said. “If you look at the top teams from the last 10 games, there are a few teams in our division there. It’s certainly a division that has picked up the pace.”
Getting the Band Back Together
On the heels of being consecutively shut out by Columbus and Calgary, Muller and the coaching staff reunited the “big three” from last season – Staal, Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin. In the eight games following, the Canes’ top line combined for 25 points (13g, 12a).
“Our best players became our best players,” Muller said. “Eric’s line reunited, and they played well.”
Asked earlier in the week if he felt the confidence and chemistry that existed between the trio last season had returned, Staal offered a confident answer.
“Yes,” he said, simply. “Yes, I do.”
Individually, as well, the numbers from the first line are impressive. Semin led the Canes in goals (8) and points (13) in January, and he was a plus-10.
Staal missed three games in January with a lower-body malady, his first games missed due to injury since Feb. 26, 2011. He had played in 191 consecutive games since then. Now in his 10th NHL season, Staal has missed just 15 games due to injury, including 10 in 2009-10 alone. Despite this, he was still a point-per-game player with 11 points (4g, 7a) in as many games, and he was a plus-7.
“I think it’s confident, which it should be,” Staal said of the mood in the room. “As a group, we feel good and comfortable with where we’re at and where we can go. Guys are feeling more comfortable in their roles, knowing what’s expected of us and expected out of each other. There are good feelings in the room, and that needs to continue with solid, consistent hockey.”
Solidity in Net
Anton Khudobin made his return from injury in January, and, as the team did, he posted a 10-4-0 record in January. On the season, he’s 12-4-0 with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. Of his losses, three occurred when the Canes were shut out and the other was in relief. In 17 appearances this season, Khudobin has yet to surrender more than three goals, something he’s only done five times.
“We had good goaltending,” Muller said, in a list of contributing factors to the team’s success in January.
Khudobin made an appearance in each of the team’s 14 January games, starting 13 of them, including a string of seven and six consecutive starts.
“He says he feels good. He’s on a roll,” Muller said last week. “He competes. He really doesn’t quit on any shots. He’s made some big, key saves on second and third chances. He’s seeing the puck well, he’s focused and he’s confident.”
Heading into February, the Hurricanes will once again have three goaltenders vying for ice, as Cam Ward is ready to return from a lower-body injury that kept him out of 13 straight games.
On Jan. 30, Ward was assigned to Charlotte (AHL) for a two-game conditioning stint, and he was recalled on Feb. 2. He went 1-1-0 – his loss coming when the Checkers were shut out – and posted a .937 save percentage.
Moving forward, Muller said the goaltending decision would be made on a game-by-game basis.
“It’s great that he went down. The test was, and the reason he went down, was more physical to see about getting through games, similar to when Khudobin went down,” Muller said. “It comes down real easily to who’s the guy who can give us the best chance to win the next game. That’s how we’re going to approach it.”
Olympics and February
NHL schedule-wise, February will be a light month due to the 16-day Olympic break, which begins on Feb. 9 and runs through Feb. 24. The break originally was slated to run through Feb. 25, but the game in Buffalo on Jan. 7 was rescheduled due to a blizzard, bringing the total of winter storm-related rescheduled games in January alone to three.
For four Hurricanes, February will continue to be a busy hockey month, as Justin Faulk (U.S.), Andrej Sekera (Slovakia), Tuomo Ruutu (Finland) and Semin (Russia) will represent their respective countries in Sochi.
Prior to the Olympic break, the Canes will finish off a four-game homestand with games against Winnipeg, Florida and Montreal in the month’s first eight days. Currently, the Canes hold a 14-10-5 at home.
“It’s big,” Muller said of the homestand. “Let’s be honest, we’d love to be sitting at the break saying we’re in a playoff spot. We have these home games, and we’ve been way better at home, which is another big thing for the month’s record. All the good teams win at home. We’ve got three games here that we want to finish up well with.”
Following the break, the Canes will embark on a season-long five-game road trip that will take them through Buffalo, Dallas, Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose – a rather difficult assignment for any team, especially considering the uncertainty of how the group responds to an extended lay off.
“You want to finish strong and put yourself in a good spot coming back after the break. We have a long road trip right off the bat, so these are big games for us. We know that,” Staal said. “We need to make sure we’re playing energized, on our toes and aggressive like we have been as of late because these are big points for us.”
|LEADING SCORERS |
|JANUARY || || || || ||OVERALL |
|PLAYER ||GP ||G ||A ||PTS ||+/- || || || || ||PLAYER ||GP ||G ||A ||PTS ||+/- |
|ALEXANDER SEMIN ||14 ||8 ||5 ||13 ||10 || || || || ||ERIC STAAL ||51 ||14 ||30 ||44 ||-9 |
|ERIC STAAL ||11 ||4 ||7 ||11 ||7 || || || || ||JEFF SKINNER ||43 ||23 ||15 ||38 ||-5 |
|JEFF SKINNER ||14 ||7 ||4 ||11 ||2 || || || || ||ANDREJ SEKERA ||52 ||8 ||23 ||31 ||6 |
|ANDREJ SEKERA ||14 ||1 ||7 ||8 ||8 || || || || ||ALEXANDER SEMIN ||42 ||13 ||15 ||28 ||6 |
|JORDAN STAAL ||14 ||3 ||4 ||7 ||-1 || || || || ||NATHAN GERBE ||54 ||12 ||14 ||26 ||-1 |
10-4-0, 20 pointsOverall record:
25-20-9, 59 points, 3rd in Metropolitan Division (as of Jan. 31) (For full standings, click here