A few days ago, I did a post titled “What are the chances?” that analyzed the Canes chances of continuing their rise in the standings and even broke down and uttered the ‘P’ word. I ultimately put the odds at 15-20 percent which is obviously far from a sure thing, but is actually a good place to be at this juncture of the season.
I think February decides it
I think February decides the Canes season when you consider a number of factors:
–If you adjust for games played, the Canes are basically 4 points out of a playoff spot. That is not an insurmountable total, but it is on the edge of being too far back especially if more games roll by getting there.
–The schedule in February is generally favorable with a home-heavy slate. March is the reverse. If the Canes are going to go on a run, February is somewhat easier.
–The impending trade deadline. If things go poorly enough in the first 2-3 weeks of February, GM Ron Francis may make the decision to sell March and April for futures by trading away any and all impending free agents who can return value.
What are the signs that it is at least possible?
During the course of February, especially early, I will be looking for a few key signs that the Canes have what it takes to continue to push upward.
1) The first 3-game road trip. The return after the break sees 3 consecutive games against teams currently out of playoff position and largely struggling in Calgary, Winnipeg and Montreal. With a rest, no back-to-backs and beatable opponents, these are the kind of games that the Canes need to win. 2-1 would be an acceptable start, but 5 or even 6 points would be an even better indication that the Canes are good enough right now to seize points in games where they should.
2) A significant rebound defensively. Camouflaged by the fact that the team still somehow found a way to mostly win down the stretch leading up to the all-star break was the fact that it looked like the wheels were about to come off the defense. Sandwiched in between some better games were a few games where the Canes were horrible on the back end in terms of committing bad turnovers and just not playing well in their own end. I think much of it is fatigue. With Justin Faulk trying to take another step up in terms of ice time and 3 key players coming off 40ish games college seasons in 2014-15, have they hit a wall that makes the rest of the 2015-16 season tough? Or was the all-star break perfectly timed to help the young guns gather a second wind and rise again in February and March?
3) Scoring leadership. We are nearing the time of year when goals become harder to come by especially in the big 4-point games in which both teams are fighting for the same place in the standings. For a team that is light on proven scoring depth, can the Canes find scoring surges from veteran leaders? Trying to scratch and claw for 3 random goals from random sources each night gets hard. Some combination of Jeff Skinner, Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg (or someone else?) on a scoring tear provides a base and leaves the team hunting for fewer goals from the depth forwards each night. A surge by Eric Staal/Kris Versteeg would be incredibly well-timed right now.
4) Confidence. Recently, the Canes have been playing with confidence and momentum. When they lose, no matter how badly, they have been able to move forward to the next game. And the team has had a new ‘find a way’ mentality that sees them winning games that they lost recently. Does this carry forward out of the break?
Only a couple more days until real hockey starts again, and I can grade the Canes against these early indicators.