As far as Januarys go in a hockey season, this one was rather unorthodox.
Instead of heading into the unofficial midseason point that is the All-Star break, the Carolina Hurricanes and the rest of the National Hockey League were jumping head-first into a shortened 48-game season.
This, of course, presented unique challenges for every team in the league, as they prepared for the regular season in just a week’s time.
The result? Uneven play in the first few games.
“You’re seeing with some of the top-picked teams, they are losing a fair share of games early in the season,” said Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford. “And then you see teams that weren’t picked are out of the gate real quick.”
Finding the Balance
The Canes were one of just two teams (the other being Anaheim) to log only five games in January. They notched a 2-3-0 record, the two wins coming against the Buffalo Sabres in a back-to-back situation. Though Carolina dropped its last January game to Boston, 5-3, there is the belief that encouraging progress has been made.
Not afforded the benefit of preseason, the Hurricanes, like many other teams who saw turnover in their lineup, spent the first few games tinkering with line combinations, searching for chemistry. Injuries aside, the team seemed to find a steady balance in the last three games.
“We made a number of changes with the team from last year’s team, but [the chemistry] is getting there,” Rutherford said. “The first two games were not good. We were out of sync. We didn’t have a lot of confidence, but we played hard. The next three games were pretty good games.”
Even still, shaping the lineup continues to be a fluid process, as it would be in any other season. Despite just being five games into the season, every player in the Hurricanes dressing room (except for Andreas Nodl, who has played five games with Charlotte) has seen game-action, an important fact in this shortened season when teams can’t afford to insert a cold player into the lineup.
“You can’t let a guy sit around. It doesn’t work for the team. It doesn’t work for the player,” Rutherford said. “The fact that the defensemen have all gotten game-action and both goalies have gotten game-action, I think being five games into the season, that’s quite a bit different than what we’ve seen in the past.”
“They Are Who We Thought They Were!”
When the Hurricanes traded for Jordan Staal at the NHL Draft in June and signed Alexander Semin as a free agent in July, they knew who they were getting: two elite forwards that would bolster the team’s forward corps.
Five games in, that’s exactly what they’ve got.
“They’ve made a difference with their size and strength alone,” Rutherford said.
Staal leads the team with five assists and he ranks tied for second on the team in points with five. And though he hasn’t found the back of the net, he’s provided the team with capable play in all ends of the ice.
“Jordan’s presence and the way he plays, he’s picking up his points,” Rutherford said. “He hasn’t scored yet, but that will come. His overall game makes our team look so much different.”
Semin has a goal and three assists, as he found the back of the net for the first time as a Hurricane in Buffalo on Jan. 25. Beyond his point total, he has provided Eric Staal with the playmaking wing partner he’s been looking for.
“Alex does things most other players can’t do. He’s getting the puck to Eric, and Eric is capitalizing on it,” Rutherford said. “He’s a great playmaker. In the first couple of games, he was making plays to guys that weren’t expecting it. That’s an adjustment that our whole team has to make. It’s starting to come together.”
Early Assessment and What it Means
Just five games into the season – even in a truncated season – it’s hard to judge performance one way or the other.
In looking back on the team’s first five games, head coach Kirk Muller is most pleased with their ability to create scoring opportunities. The team leads the league in average shots for per game at 38. Now, he said, it’s a matter of combining a threatening offense with a responsible defense.
“The offensive production is there. We are out-chancing our opponent every night. We want to be a high-tempo team, and I think that part is good,” he said. “The part we continue to harp on is that we can defend and do both. We’ve been good at times defending, and then other times had a couple of breakdowns.”
“Our defense has to get better,” Rutherford said. “As long as our forwards and goalie do what they’re capable of doing, we can go a long time with our defense like this, and hopefully they can take it to another level, a contending team-like level. We’ll have time to look at that.”
But beyond the typical on-ice situations, when can you accurately measure the success and failures of a team in this unique season? Rutherford said it’s a question that he has pondered, but he remains unsure.
“All teams are going to have their good runs and bad runs,” he said. “It’s going to happen with every team.”
A Road-Heavy February
The Hurricanes will play nine of 14 games on the road in February, anchored by a six-game road trip at the outset. This longest swing of the year takes the team up, down and back up again along the Eastern seaboard.
The team will mix in three additional road games in the last two weeks of February, making it the team’s most road-heavy month of play.
The extended road trip and road schedule in general become magnified when considering the compacted schedule. When the Hurricanes arrive back in Raleigh on Feb. 13, they’ll have played a fourth of their 48-game schedule. By the end of the month, the team will be five games shy of the official halfway point.
“From our point of view, we’re going to have a much better understanding of where we’re at after this road trip,” Rutherford said. “As long as we can continue to build on the chemistry and continuing to work on Kirk wants, this team has a chance to do real well.”
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