After what seemed like a well-timed break, the Carolina Hurricanes are back on the ice at PNC Arena on Friday against the Vegas Golden Knights. The game is #51 out of 82 games, so the season has reached the front part of the stretch run.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a quick look at where the Hurricanes are right now and also what lies ahead schedule-wise.
Where the Hurricanes are right now
After a strong finish at home before the All-Star break, the Canes are in a growing bunch of teams sitting right at the playoff cut line. Adjusted for games played, the Eastern Conference has six teams battling third place in the two divisions and also the two wild card slots. The gap between those six teams (again adjusted for games played) is a mere four points. So simple math says that four out of six of these teams will make the playoffs, and two will fall into a mid-round draft slot after missing the playoffs.
The way I view it is that the Canes have avoided becoming one of the six teams in the Eastern Conference who are really long shots to win a playoff spot at this point. At the same time, the Hurricanes are not among the four teams who have built at least a small gap above the pack right at the playoff cut line.
The road ahead
The Hurricanes emerge from the break with two straight home games. But after that, the Hurricanes will finish the season with 17 out of 30 games on the road. Since the Christmas break, the Hurricanes are 7-2-1 on home ice, but 0-3-0 on the road. For the season, the Hurricanes are a treading water-ish 12-10-2 away from home. So that schedule split could prove to be significant.
The first test begins next week with a meandering four-game road trip that starts and ends in the Central Time Zone with two games on the West Coast in the middle. Once the West Coast trip ends, the Hurricanes will also play 12 of their last 26 games against Metropolitan Division foes. It is no secret to anyone who has tracked the 2019-20 Hurricanes that these in-division games have been a struggle so far.
What does it take?
At this time last season, the team was still trying to make up for past wrongs and climb up the standings. To make the playoffs for the 2019-20 season, the Canes need only finish top four out of six the rest of the way in a group that includes the Islanders, Blue Jackets, Flyers, Maple Leafs and Panthers (as long as all 3 Metro teams do finish ahead). Basically, the long race at the beginning of the season has been compressed in terms of games remaining and number of teams in the hunt.
At a style and quality of play level, I think the key is finding a rhythm like this time last year such that the team consistently plays well enough to stay in games and gets goaltending that gives them a chance every night. Consistency in those two areas make it possible to reel off winning streaks and avoid losing runs.
Player-wise, goaltending is always critical down the stretch. I think Sebastian Aho finding a higher gear could go a long way toward keeping scoring up. And with the injury to Dougie Hamilton, I think the play of the other two defenseman past anchors Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce are also critical.
What say you Canes fans?
1) How happy are you with the Canes starting point for the beginning of the stretch run?
2) What do you see as keys in terms of the team in general and also individual players?
3) How does it end? Is this team set to return to the playoffs?
1) The team has been exceptionally streaky. Given that, they are in decent shape after 50 games.
2) Aho will be key. If he puts up 45 points in the remaining 32 games, the Canes are almost assuredly in the playoffs. One point, I do think some are overstating is the absence of Hamilton. In November and December he was producing at an 85-point pace. In the 20 games since he was producing at a 49-point pace, which is still close to his career high. That is still a lot of offense from a defender, but the production can be replaced with forwards (the addition of Williams and Dzingel finding his scoring touch).
3) My guess is it comes down to the last 7 games (@NYI, @PIT, TOR, PIT, @NJ, BOS, CBJ, @BOS). Maybe Boston has little to play for. Otherwise, it will be nail-biting time with the last two back-to-back. Should the Canes finish behind CBJ and PHI I hope the front-office notices the irony of the organization losing out to two teams led by rookie goaltenders.
Last 8 games.
The odds feel favorable when there are 6 teams and 4 spots and Canes are currently in a playoff position. Even with the loss of Dougie, this team is very talented and deep, especially with Williams back.
At the same time, the remaining schedule is brutal. High difficulty in the final 10 games, including two games against Boston, two against Pittsburgh, and then Blues, Islanders, Leafs, Blue Jackets (Devils and Senators are the remaining two games).
Overall, I feel like this is a playoff team. But also, I wouldn’t be shocked if this tough schedule makes the path very challenging for the Canes.