What a difference a couple weeks makes. Barely more than two weeks ago, the Carolina Hurricanes were mired in a four-game losing streak that had pushed the team below .500 for the first time this season. But starting with an overtime loss on November 4, the Hurricanes have collected at least a point in seven out of eight games with a 5-1-2 record.
The run of strong play has the Hurricanes in a great place right now. If one creates standings based on games above .500 to adjust for games played, the Hurricanes are currently tied with the Penguins for the seventh and eighth playoff spots in the Eastern Conference with plus 3 marks.
The recent trajectory is clearly positive. The current position is also positive. And the outlook going forward is positive.
But Hurricanes know from painful experience that success over the course of a long 82-game season is very much a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ game that can turn on a dime and go from good to bad just like that.
Based on that I break the Carolina Hurricanes’ upcoming schedule down into two stretches that I think could be critical for determining the end result for the entire season.
Leg 1 — Keep the pedal down with family
This week the Hurricanes have what looks like a reasonably friendly stretch of schedule. After just completing another quick burst of three games in four days with travel before each, the Hurricanes now get two days off and then three nicely-spaced games with no travel. The opponents are decent teams, but the physical part of it is favorable. When you combine that with the current winning momentum, the week looks favorable. But think this week’s three-game run could be tricky in two regards.
First is that the positive results could cause the Hurricanes to take a deep breath and let up just a little. I think the fact that the past few wins have actually been ‘iffy’ in a lot of ways (mostly defense) makes any amount of complacency even more dangerous. Second is the holidays themselves. NHL players are largely creatures of routine. They take a nap at a certain time. They eat a similar pre-game meal at a certain time. They put their equipment on in a certain order. Etc. The holidays can throw off routine. It’s just a wild guess, but with Marc and the Rangers in town on Wednesday, I bet the Staal’s are hosting his parents for Thanksgiving and possibly even Marc and his family. That makes for extra people around the house and likely some diversions from the usual routine.
Leg 2 — The “road” ahead
Looking at what happens next on the Carolina Hurricanes 2017-18 schedule illustrates why I think pushing forward positively in the short burst of three home games is so important. After the Thanksgiving week home stand, the Hurricanes then basically hit the road until the Christmas holiday. Over the roughly four weeks leading up the weekend before Christmas, the Hurricanes play 10 out of 12 games on the road with the two homes games separated. The result is that the team will get on an airplane on Monday, November 27 and will not return home for more than a day or two until December 21. Further, the Hurricanes will travel before each and every game during that stretch and also play three sets of back-to-backs.
Needless to say, December’s schedule could be challenging.
Underlying trends that are less than the results
I am on record repeatedly as saying “results matter.” I stand by that statement. Especially for a team that has mostly played its way out of the playoff chase in October and November in recent years, winning trumps style points by a factor of 10. But the other side of the coin is that winning in random ways and/or when not deserved is usually not sustainable.
Despite the winning ways of late, I would actually say that too many areas of the Hurricanes’ game right now are trending in the wrong direction. Saturday’s win against Buffalo was chock full of defensive breakdowns. Only by virtue of Scott Darling being a super hero that night did the Canes win. Maybe to a slightly lesser degree, the same was true on Sunday against the Islanders. Cam Ward stood on his head and made the effort look much prettier than it really was.
In addition, Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho have been finishing at an unsustainable rate of late. Even if both players continue on their higher path which is totally possible, days like Teravainen’s hat trick where you shoot three times and score on each one are rare. And not much else is really clicking offensively to provide depth. The power play has netted a few goals in recent games which is a positive, but I am not yet ready to declare it cured. And while there has been some depth scoring, I am not sure I would say that any of the other lines are clicking offensively yet.
Without going too far exploring darkness, the shorter version is that the recent formula for winning has been ‘iffy.’ The team needs to re-find a higher gear defensively or run the risk of a sudden downturn if the goaltending is unable to bail them out and/or when the TSA line returns to Earth.
Avoiding deja vu
A common misconception is that the 2016-17 season crashed and burned during the State Fair road trip. While it is true that the State Fair road trip was a significant negative for the 2016-17 at 1-3-2, the team actually recovered and played its way back into decent position. In fact, the swoon that probably caused the most trouble started on game 19 after the team had climbed to 8-6-4. That 8-6-4 mark is only a single win shy of where the Hurricanes are right now at 9-6-4. At that point during the 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes took to the road and floundered. Next, the Hurricanes took to the road for December and played 9 of 11 on the road (sound familiar?). They hit a bump in the road and a 1-4-1 mark that quickly pushed them back below .500.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What do you think the Canes need to do in three games this week and then in the road-heavy stretch of 12 games that follows to stay in good position in the playoff chase?
2) Do you similarly see signs of potential problems lurking? Or am I just being paranoid?