After extending their winning streak to four with a 7-4 victory against the New York Islanders on Jan. 14, the Carolina Hurricanes appeared ready to bid for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
Last week brought a reality check with four consecutive losses -- two on the road against the Columbus Blue Jackets (4-1 on Tuesday and 3-2 on Saturday), a 7-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday at home and a 6-1 loss to the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Monday.
The Hurricanes are three points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. So they are within striking distance but also have gotten a taste of how difficult the competition is within the Metropolitan Division.
After losing to the Capitals on Monday, the Hurricanes are 4-11-2 against Metropolitan teams.
"It's certainly not an easy division to play in but that's where we are," Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis said. "We can't worry about that. We just have to go out there every night and play our best and try to win as many hockey games as we can, and give ourselves a chance at the end of the season to be in the playoffs."
Having one of the younger rosters in the NHL, Francis understands the Hurricanes are going to go through some growing pains. After defenseman Noah Hanifin, who will turn 20 on Wednesday, and left wing Teuvo Teravainen, 22, struggled in the loss to the Penguins on Friday, coach Bill Peters sat them as healthy scratches in Columbus on Saturday.
"With a lot of our young guys, there's always questions as to how they're going to perform and how they're going to adapt and how they're going to handle the 82-game schedule," Francis said. "So there were a lot of questions going into the season but certainly we feel we upgraded our team from where we were last season."
Video: CAR@BOS: Hanifin buries PPG on a scorching shot
Whether Francis will upgrade the roster again before the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 28 remains to be seen but he's expecting to get some phone calls.
"When you look at our cap situation we've got a lot of room, so I think we're a team that teams will be calling if they're looking to move some things," Francis said. "Our payroll is at a position where we could certainly add some things there, too. So I think we're sitting in a good position. As we've said from Day 1, we're going to make decisions that are not only good for us right now but long term.
"If the right deal is there, then we're certainly going to make it. If not, we'll sit tight and continue to grow it from within."
The impressive group of young talent already playing for the Hurricanes includes defensemen Jaccob Slavin, 22, Brett Pesce, 22, Justin Faulk, 24, and Hanifin, and forwards Sebastien Aho, 19, Brock McGinn, 22, and Teravainen. The next wave on the way includes forwards Julien Gauthier (a first-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft), Nicolas Roy, (2015 fourth-round pick, No. 96), Janne Kuokkanen, (2016 second-round pick, No. 43), Aleksi Saarela (New York Rangers' 2015 third-round pick, No. 89, acquired in Eric Staal trade) and Warren Foegele (2014 third-round pick, No. 67), plus defenseman Jake Bean (2016 first-round pick, No. 13).
So Francis has enough depth to trade away a young player or two if he believes the timing and the return fit.
"I remember sitting down with [Detroit Red Wings GM] Ken Holland my first year and he said it takes it four or five years to really get it to where you want to get it and we're about two and a half years into getting there," Francis said. "I think the key in our decisions is we've been patient to this point and we want to make ourselves better but we're not going to do something that sets us back."
Flyers seeking consistency
The Flyers moved back into the second wild card by overcoming a two-goal deficit in a 3-2 overtime win against the Islanders on Sunday. With four wins, including one in regulation, in their past 16 games (4-9-3) following a 10-game winning streak, the Flyers have struggled to put together complete games over the past month.
Maybe the comeback win against the Islanders will snap them out of their funk. The Flyers were hoping to reset during their bye week but returned from it with a 4-1 home loss to the New Jersey Devils on Saturday and then fell behind 2-0 to the Islanders before rallying.
"We've got to keep our heads now," Flyers GM Ron Hextall said last week. "Nobody's going to get us out of this. It's the whole group. This isn't about one thing or one move or one player not playing or one player playing. This is about our whole group and we've got to be better."
Although Hextall said he was OK with how the Flyers leadership group has handled the slide, he acknowledged, "Our leaders haven't been good enough. Neither have our lesser guys. Nobody's been good enough right now. You don't win 10 [in a row] and then go through a stretch like this without responsibility being everywhere."
Captain Claude Giroux scored the overtime winner Sunday to end a 12-game goal drought but he wasn't the only Flyers player who was struggling. Forward Wayne Simmonds' goal was his third in the past 16 games. Forward Jakub Voracek has two goals in his past 17 games.
Video: PHI@NYI: Gostisbehere finds Giroux for OT winner
With 992 points in 747 NHL games, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is on pace to pass Jaromir Jagr (763 games) and become the fastest to reach the 1,000-point milestone among active players. … Penguins left wing Conor Sheary has scored two goals in three of his past four games, and has four two-goal games this season. … In addition to becoming the first goaltender to win 20 or more games in each of his first 12 NHL seasons with a 1-0 overtime victory against the Red Wings on Sunday, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers became the third goalie in League history with 12 consecutive 20-win seasons at any point in his NHL career, joining Martin Brodeur (1995-96 to 2007-08) and Tony Esposito (1969-70 to 1980-81), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. … Capitals backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer is 7-0-2 in his past nine appearances, and 9-1-2 with a 2.05 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and two shutouts for the season.
Games to watch
Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers (Jan. 25, 8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) -- The third of four games between the Flyers and Rangers this season. The Rangers won the first two, including a 5-2 victory in their last game at Wells Fargo Center on Jan. 4.
Washington Capitals at New Jersey Devils (Jan. 26, 7 p.m. ET; MSG, CSN-DC, NHL.TV) -- The Capitals and Devils play for the third time in less than a month. The Devils won 2-1 in a shootout at Verizon Center on Dec. 29. The Capitals won 6-2 at Prudential Center on Dec. 31.
Philadelphia Flyers at Carolina Hurricanes (Jan. 31, 7 p.m. ET; FS-CR, CSN-PH, NHL.TV) -- Two teams in the battle for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes play the second game in a stretch where they play eight of 11 at PNC Arena. They are 14-2-1 in their past 17 home games.
Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals (Feb. 1, 8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1, SNE, SNO, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) -- The Capitals face the Bruins in the Wednesday Night Rivalry game. The Capitals defeated the Bruins 4-3 in overtime at Verizon Center on Dec. 7.
Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins (Feb. 3, 7 p.m. ET; TVA Sports, ROOT, NHL.TV) -- The Blue Jackets defeated the Penguins 7-1 in their last game at Nationwide Arena on Dec. 22.