With Saturday’s game in San Jose, the Hurricanes concluded a tough stretch of hockey that included 9 out of 11 games on the road with only 2 quick, 1-game stops in Raleigh. The team played the last 7 games without arguably its most indispensable player Jordan Staal. As one might expect the results were not favorable. The team scratched and clawed for points and averted a big swoon, but the 2-3-2 mark was a negative in the standings especially relative to surging Metropolitan division adversaries. Each and every 1 of the 5 Metropolitan Division teams currently in playoff position is currently riding an extended winning streak. (Penguins 6, Rangers 3, Flyers 9, Blue Jackets 6, Capitals 4).
But with the culmination of the last stretch on the road, the Hurricanes can now look forward to a run of hockey with much more time spent in Raleigh. When I look at the stretch of schedule ahead, I look at 16 games broken down into 3 segments, and I think this stretch of hockey could be the Hurricanes’ best chance to push up into the pack of teams competing for playoff spots.
Return to home cooking (Aiming for 3-1)
The run starts with 4 straight at home where the Hurricanes have won 6 straight. That stretch of 4 games includes 2 teams currently sitting below .500 (only 6 out of 30 teams hold that dubious distinction right now) plus 2 tougher match ups. Very simply, the Hurricanes need to maintain their home mojo and pick up 3 wins.
RESULTS ADDED 1/15: The Hurricanes went 2-0-1 with the Detroit game postponed and moved to March basically matching the pace needed. Had the Canes played the Detroit game, it would have taken only an overtime loss to make the number.
A tough middle stanza (Aiming for 3-2)
The middle part of the 3 segments is the toughest. After 4 at home, the next 5 games alternate between home and away (3 away/2 home) and feature 4 tough opponents in the Bruins, Penguins, Blackhawks and Lightning (with the Sabres to start). Again, with the aim of using the upcoming stretch of schedule to push up, I think the Canes need to find a rhythm and a way to get 6 points out of 5 games to keep climbing above .500.
RESULTS ADDED 1/15: The Hurricanes went exactly 3-2 and could have done better except for a disappointing loss in Pittsburgh in which they deserved better.
The home stretch (Aiming for 5-2)
If the Canes can make good on the first 2 segments, they will enter 2017 at 3 games above .500 and approaching another home-heavy stretch of 5 games out of 7 at PNC Arena to start January. After a couple days off to start the new year, the Canes play 7 games in 12 days with only a tough back-to-back set in St. Louis/Chicago in the middle on the road. A 5-2 record is a big ask, but if the Hurricanes are to push into the playoff mix, it requires mounting a climb above .500, and this stretch of home hockey is as good of an opportunity as any to do exactly that.
RESULTS ADDED 1/15: The set of 5 games started ominously with a home loss to New Jersey, but a split on the road set the stage for a 4-game home winning streak to exactly make the 5-2 requested.
If the Hurricanes can match my aggressive targets, they will have pushed to 6 games above .500 and be on pace for about 94 points. Though the current pace is much higher right now, history suggests that it takes 95-97 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. So ideally with some help from a couple of Metropolitan Division rivals cooling off, the Hurricanes would at least be in the neighborhood of what is necessary to play games that matter in late March and early April.
When the run of 16 games including 11 at home ends, the Hurricanes will have given back most of the home games in hand (will have played 21 at home and 23 on the road). The team will also be 3 games past the midway point at 44 games played. This midway point will be too early to declare the season over if the Hurricanes just continue to tread water around the .500 mark, but the 2015-16 season is a fresh and striking example of how difficult it is to make up ground in a hurry late in the NHL schedule.
Is it possible that the Hurricanes just continue to tread water over the next month and find the needed hot stretch later in the season? Sure. But as noted above, the 2015-16 season that saw the Hurricanes play pretty well desperately trying to hunt down the pack late in the season showed how hard it is to do. I really think that if a playoff push is going to happen for the 2016-17 season, the time is now.