With a wild win on Thursday in Montreal, the Hurricanes cut their losing streak short at two games and pushed into the All-Star weekend on a positive note. Though they lost a bit more ground in the standings in the process, I actually think the 2-2 mark between the bye week and the All-Star break was enough to put the ball on the tee for the 25 days that I have long said will decide the fate of the Hurricanes 2017-18 season.
On the day the 2017-18 schedule was released, the run of 12 games with 11 at home that starts on January 30 jumps out. During the summer, I thought that if the Hurricanes could make it to here with the season still hanging in the balance that these next few weeks would decide the season.
And here we are.
First, let me offer some context on the playoff situation as it stands right now.
What does it take to make the playoffs?
Nowadays there are any number of constantly adjusting models that fly across my screen on Twitter on a regular basis, but being a simple person, I still just say that it takes 95 points until proven otherwise. Based on history, this is rarely too far off.
Simply projecting points so far might suggest that 92 points is the cut line, but I think a deeper evaluation quickly points back to 95 points. While it is true that the Penguins 92-point pace currently finishes in the eighth and final playoff spot, the next level of math boosts that by a couple points. With the Islanders, Rangers and Hurricanes close on the heels of the Penguins and their 92-point pace, what will invariably happen is that at least one of those teams will get hot and push ahead of that 92-point pace likely to 94 or 95 points.
So how do the Hurricanes measure up to that pace?
Right now, simple math says that the Hurricanes are on pace for only 87 points which obviously will not cut it. That number creeps a bit higher if you adjust for the fact that the Hurricanes have a home-heavy schedule remaining with seven more home games than road games left which is the biggest gap in the league. If the Hurricanes can capitalize on home ice down the stretch, that in itself could provide a couple-point boost.
The 25 days that decide the season
And in that regard, the ball is on the tee for the Hurricanes to either rise up or fade away in the 25 days that start on January 30 and carry into late February. The Hurricanes start with three consecutive home games against teams currently below them in the Eastern Conference standings (Ottawa, Montreal, Detroit) as part of a run during which they play almost exclusively at home. In theory, the way this rolls out is that the Hurricanes use the three potentially easier games to build a rhythm and then just fun with that through February.
If the Hurricanes muddle through this stretch with a respectable but not great 6-6 or even 7-5 record, they will likely emerge near the trade deadline still in the playoff chase. But in the process, they will have burned through the most favorable part of the schedule without much to show for it, and they suddenly be in the last quarter of the season still with a deficit. Sure, the Hurricanes could surge late, but the probability of the team suddenly finding it during a tougher part of the schedule after failing to capitalize on a favorable stretch seems unlikely. And we know from 2016-17 just how hard it is to make up ground in March if a team starts from a deficit.
As such, my assertion continues to be that the Hurricanes must surge during this run of home hockey to be a going concern in the playoff chase in late March and early April. To me, surge means 9-3 or better. That would be enough to push the team’s pace to 94 points and likely also boost them at least up to if not above the cut line heading into the final quarter of the season.
Something like 8-4 might be enough, but I think a drop to 7-5 or 6-6 just will not be enough.
Is there another way?
If the Hurricanes muddle through the home stretch with a mediocre record, they will still emerge mathematically with a chance for late-season magic. But personally, if the magic does not happen in February, I just do not see it happening at all.
Handicapping the competition
As of right now, to make the playoffs, the Hurricanes need to be better than three other teams in the Metropolitan Division. I am crediting the Capitals with a playoff spot, but I think everyone else has come back to the pack enough that they are in play and in jeopardy of falling below the cut line.
Washington Capitals (+14 wins above .500) — The Capitals are the one team from the Metropolitan Division that I consider to be a lock for the playoffs and not a team that the Hurricanes should concern themselves with.
Columbus Blue Jackets (+8 wins above .500) — Columbus is the other team that I considered at least tentatively counting as a playoff team. I think at the end of the day that via some combination of depth and Bobrovsky that the Jackets get in, so I do not see them as a likely target to chase down.
New Jersey Devils (+8 wins above .500) — Quite recently, I would have similarly put the Devils in the small group very likely to prevail. But two things have changed recently. First is that the Devils have given up some ground with a 2-7-3 mark in their last 12 games including a current four-game losing streak. Also significant is the fact that Corey Schneider is out with an injury and at least temporarily takes away a strength. Especially if Schneider is out for awhile, I could see New Jersey rejoining the pack after spending much of the season above it.
Philadelphia Flyers (+7 wins above .500) — The Flyers are the ship passing in the night with the Devils. While the Devils have fallen of late, the Flyers have risen with a 8-3 run in January. As of right now, other teams look more vulnerable but during the course of the topsy-turvy NHL season, that can change quickly.
Pittsburgh Penguins (+6 wins above .500) — Until very recently, the Penguins were actually below the Hurricanes in the standings, but that has changed recently. On a points per game basis, the Penguins currently hold the final playoff spot. The Penguins still have a question mark in net which is significant and also less depth than in years past, but at the end of the day, I still think that some combination on top-end veteran moxy and Jim Rutherford making a trade deadline acquisition or two will be enough to propel the Penguins up the standings and safely into the playoffs where they would play for a third straight Stanley Cup. Here is hoping that I am wrong.
New York Rangers (+4 wins above .500) — Fading and in my opinion likely to keep doing so are the Rangers. The deck is stacked against them in a couple ways. First is that they face a road-tilted remaining schedule with only 13 home games remaining versus 20 road games. In addition, the Rangers are trending in the wrong direction with a 3-7 record in their last 10. And to make matters worse, they are now going to be without a leading defenseman in Kevin Shattenkirk who is out with a knee injury. I think the Rangers and vulnerable and a team that the Hurricanes will surpass if they can put things together.
New York Islanders (+4 wins above .500) — The Islanders are another team that I see as vulnerable. As teams improve and tighten up defensively, I just do not see their formula of high octane scoring coupled a weak defense as viable down the stretch. Right now, the Islanders rank third in scoring and dead last in goals allowed. My money says that formula collapses down the stretch.
So who do the Hurricanes need to beat out?
At the end of the day, I think it is more about the Hurricanes finding their game and a 94-95-point pace. If they do that, I think enough teams will come back to them.
As noted above, I think the Rangers and Islanders are especially vulnerable, but to push into the playoffs, the Hurricanes will need to surpass at least one other team. I think identifying that target is trickier. The Penguins are closest, but I continue to believe that they are ultimately headed up not down. As such, I think the Hurricanes need to win and then hope one of Columbus, New Jersey, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia hits a bump in the road that puts them within range.
If I had to venture a guess, I think the best bet is either that New Jersey has run out of gas and continues to fade minus Corey Schneider or that Philadelphia reverses course and comes back (that actually happened at about this time last season).
What is the version of this story that finishes with a happy ending and a triumphant return of playoff hockey?
I think the happy version goes like this…The Hurricanes use the soft start against three weaker teams after the All-Star break to quickly go to 3-0 and in the process build momentum and confidence. They then ride that momentum to a 9-3 or 10-2 mark for the 12-game run. That, in itself, does not guarantee a playoff berth by any stretch of the imagination, but what it does is push the Hurricanes up above the cut line, build confidence and encourage Ron Francis to maybe add a player at the trade deadline to bolster the playoff chances. From there March and early April are an up and down dog fight, but in the end the fact that the Hurricanes are young and still improving wins out. And (sorry not trying to generate skepticism) somewhere along the way, the Hurricanes netminding rounds into a reasonable form. And with that, the 2017-18 season sees the ownership transition FINALLY completed and a return to the playoffs to boot. Anything past that is just a bonus on what will have been a good year for Hurricanes hockey.
Rest up over the weekend and prepare to strap yourself in next week Canes fans. What could prove to be the wildest part of the 2017-18 #CanesCoaster will occur in rapid fire schedule at PNC Arena right before our very eyes over the next three weeks.