Happy New Year Hurricanes fans! Sunday brought news that the Buffalo Bills had ended the longest playoff drought in the NFL. Here is hoping that the Hurricanes similarly end the longest drought in the NHL in 2018!
I have written a handful of articles already that broke down chunks of upcoming schedule. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks forward into 2018 and the schedule ahead.
Early January – The gauntlet (7 games)
Starting with the St. Louis Blues game on Saturday, the Hurricanes face a tough stretch of 8 games chock full of teams in the top third of the NHL either in 2017-18 (Washington times 3, Tampa Bay, Boston, Pittsburgh, Calgary and the St. Louis game just completed) with 5 of those 8 games on the road.
I view this stretch of hockey as critical to the season. After a strong performance in December that pushed the Hurricanes to within reach of the playoff cut line, the Hurricanes need to play well enough in early January to not give up what they worked so hard to gain in December.
The goal: To emerge from the third of three games against the Capitals in only 11 days still within one or two points out of the final playoff spot.
What it takes: The Hurricanes need to at least break even at 3-3 in the remaining 6 games following the loss to the Blues to start the tough stretch.
The second half of January – Navigating the bye week (4 games)
The second half of January features a quick burst of 4 games with 3 on the road and also the challenge of getting back up to speed after the bye week. The Hurricanes hit a lull around this time in 2016-17 that put a few nails in the coffin.
Like the front part of January, I view this stretch as more of the lead up than the main event. The team does not need to win out in this short stretch, but similar to the front part of the month, it cannot afford to give up ground either.
The goal: Similar to the front part of the month, the goal is not to hit a skid and give up December’s gains.
What it takes: Again, .500 (so 2-2) would be the low end of acceptable, though ideally the Hurricanes will find a way to be plus 1 or 2 for the month.
February – Now or never happens at home (12 games)
Starting with a home game against Ottawa on January 30, the Hurricanes play 11 of 12 games at home. As long as the team can at least tread water in January, I think this stretch of games in February has the greatest chance to decide the fate of the season. The odd stretch features two sets of back-to-backs with both games at home and also three sets of three games in four nights. Winning in the NHL is more about how a team is playing than opponents or schedule, but if the schedule is going to play a role, this would be the time.
The goal: If the Hurricanes mostly tread water in January and enter February at or near the playoff cut line, the team will need to surge during this stretch. If the team treads water here, they will still be in the playoff chase, but I think it could also be a telltale sign that the team just does not have it in them to string together the run needed to rise above the cut line.
What it takes: Something like 8-5 would be a minimum, but I really think if the Hurricanes are going to find a higher gear a combination of rhythm and rest at during this home stretch could see something like 10-3 be what makes them a surefire playoff team.
Heading into the final quarter…
The home run through February 23 will see the Hurricanes heading into the final quarter of the season with only 21 games remaining. March is the typical busy grind that it always is. The phenomenal March in 2016-17 that still was not enough shows just how important it is to enter the month trying to hold position not make up for past mistakes.
I really think if the Hurricanes are to make the playoffs, it will require a steady January that does not give up December’s gains followed by the team finding a rhythm at home an reeling off a bunch of wins in February.