At one point this season, it would have been difficult to come up with one single thing that had gone right for the Hurricanes. That task has proven to be much easier these days.
Prior to January, the team had not experienced a three-game winning streak all season. Monday night’s victory ensured that they would have their third such run since the calendar turned to 2010. Since January 21, they’ve won eight of their last 11 games, which is by far their best stretch of hockey this year.
As to what’s changed or why things seem to be working better now than they did in the past, coach Paul Maurice couldn’t put his finger on one particular area.
“I don’t think it’s fair to do that, because a lot of parts of our game have come together,” he said. “I do think Eric [Staal] getting healthy has been a huge part of that. We’ve added a forward – [Chad LaRose] came earlier and that made a big difference, and now [Tuomo] Ruutu comes in and that makes a big difference for us. We’ve had good goaltending.”
Maurice also mentioned much-improved special teams play. Over the last 11 contests, the Canes have converted at a 22 percent rate on the power play, which would contend for the league lead if maintained for the season.
Even more impressively, the team has allowed just three power play goals over that stretch, posting a stellar 93 percent clip on the penalty kill. To put that number in perspective, the Buffalo Sabres, who come to the RBC Center this Thursday evening, paced the NHL with an 86.9 percent shorthanded success rate as of Wednesday afternoon.
Rather than any tactical changes made, Maurice pointed to the relative continuity in the lineup as a reason for the resurgent special teams. There are still significant injuries, but there has not been as much turnover on a day-to-day basis as there was in the first half.
“At the end, the difference in most of these games is if you can shut the other team out on the power play and you can get one, you’re in a great spot,” he said. “A big part of this is having the same five guys come off the bench.”
For those keeping score, one could now claim health, dominant performances by star players, goaltending and special teams as positives surrounding the team right now, which again, are four more things then one could have come up with in October and November.
More than anything else, it could just be that players are having fun again, which is evident both on the ice and behind the scenes.
”When you get a good feeling, you really enjoy it and the confidence is back,” said Maurice after Wednesday’s practice at the RecZone. “On a day like today, if you came off three losses it would be tougher sledding out there. Today we’ve won three, so the puck is lighter and you feel a little bit better about yourself.”
This isn’t to suggest that the Hurricanes are rolling around in four-leaf clovers. There are still significant concerns about goaltender Cam Ward’s back, while Erik Cole has been out for much longer than originally projected.
Cole continued to practice with the team in a non-contact jersey Wednesday, as did Scott Walker. Ward is still a few weeks away from a definitive prognosis.
In Ward’s absence, Maurice said that Manny Legace would start Thursday’s game following a strong performance against Florida two days earlier. Justin Peters would then make his second career NHL start on Saturday against the New Jersey Devils, which is the team’s final game before the two-week Olympic break.
Since Ward’s injury, Legace and Peters have combined to post a 3-0-0 record, .942 save percentage and 1.67 goals-against average.