Bolstered by their second-best six-game road trip in franchise history, the Carolina Hurricanes vaulted to the peak of the Southeast Division in the second month of 2013.
And despite running head-on into a spell of injuries, that’s where the team has remained for the better part of February.
“Certainly when we had our whole team together, the players came together and showed what they can do,” said President and General Manager Jim Rutherford. “Of course, the division has gotten a lot tighter as teams behind us have closed the gap. But we’ve been able to stay right there, and I think that’s important.”
The Canes compiled an 8-5-1 record in the 28-day month, recording 17 out of a possible 28 points. Though the team dropped three straight games in the latter half of the month, their three-game winning streak and six-game point streak in the first half of the month set the table for a successful February.
The Hurricanes played a road-heavy schedule in February, logging nine of 14 games away from Raleigh, including a season-high six-game road trip at the beginning of the month. With the team having just played five games by the end of January, Rutherford pinpointed the extend road trip as an accurate barometer of the state of the team.
Needless to say, he was pleased with what he saw, as the Hurricanes posted a 4-1-1 record (nine points) on their trek up and down the Eastern seaboard.
“We had to have it, because if we didn’t have it, we would be in a hole now,” Rutherford said. “It’s also the fact that the players showed what they could do and how they came together, and we beat some good teams on that trip.”
“It was a big road trip. We established our team identity, and that did a lot for us,” said forward Jeff Skinner. “Not only did we pick up points, but we got to the way we wanted to play. Once you find that early in the year, you just have to keep building on it.”
Aside from the statistical importance of the six-game road trip, the 12 days away from home allowed a team which had its roster significantly reshaped in the offseason to bond. From the final game of the 2011-12 season on April 7, 2012 to the first game of the 2012-13 season on Jan. 19, 2013 in South Florida, the Hurricanes – due various transactions and injuries – had nine different players in their lineup.
“I think that was sort of a bonus. You look at the shortened training camp and condensed schedule and having so many new faces, it was nice to get that time together on the road and come together early in the year,” Skinner said. “In that way, it was pretty good timing, and I think it worked out well for us.”
The Canes rounded out their road schedule winning just one of three, but it was how they won that game that is noteworthy. Down 2-0 with less than two minutes to play in the second period in New York on Feb. 24, Eric Staal potted a power-play goal to cut the Islanders’ lead in half. Just 45 seconds later, his brother, Jordan, tied the game at two. With the game-winning goal from Bobby Sanguinetti, his first career NHL goal, the Canes would go on to win the game 4-2, their second come-from-behind victory in New York in less than two weeks.
“A few times on that road trip, we were going into the third period down a goal or couple of goals, and you’ve just got to stick with it, be consistent and play a full 60 minutes. I think we did a good job of being consistent within the game, and I think on top of that, on the road trip we were consistent game-to-game. That’s the thing we want to put an emphasis on throughout the year – being a consistent team and not change or get away from things if things aren’t going too well.”
Injuries Deplete Lineup, Create Opportunities
It was an inevitable occurrence in such a compacted schedule, but the Hurricanes could not have foreseen the amount of injuries they faced to key players in such a short time span.
At one point in February, the team was missing three of their top defensemen, their second-leading scorer and their power-play quarterback. On Thursday, a significant chunk of the wounded returned to the lineup, as the Canes welcomed back Skinner, Tim Brent, Tim Gleason and Jamie McBain. As of the end of the month, the Canes are still without forward Tuomo Ruutu, who remains out long-term, and defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who is mere days away from returning to the lineup.
“We knew teams would go through these injuries, but not to the extent we’ve gone through them,” Rutherford said. “To have it all happen at once is tough.”
For Rutherford, who is constantly evaluating the team and looking for ways to improve it, he found it difficult to assess the group as a whole with so many vital bodies missing from the lineup. Things went south, he said, as the Canes lost four of five games in the last weeks of the month, but the cushion they built up early on kept the team afloat.
Of course, with injuries come opportunities. In Montreal on Feb. 18, the Hurricanes dressed nine players (five forward, three defensemen and a goaltender) that had played with the Charlotte Checkers at one point this season.
Two blue-liners made their NHL debuts in February, each within a week of one another. On Valentine’s Day, 22-year-old Michal Jordan dressed in his first NHL game, playing just over 12 minutes. A week later, 19-year-old Ryan Murphy was recalled from the Kitchener Rangers and logged 23:51 of ice time in his NHL debut. Murphy played in four games with Carolina before returning to Kitchener.
“He’s done very well. It’s given him some confidence going forward,” Rutherford said before Murphy was reassigned. “Certainly he is a guy that should be in our projections for the very near future.
“What we get to see is that he’s playing with bigger and stronger guys and playing at the pace of the game at the NHL level. He gets to see what adjustments he needs to make, and the coaches get to see how many minutes he can play and who he should play with and all that.”
Game results aside, Rutherford was by and large pleased with the carousel of players that patched up the depleted regular bunch.
“It’s shown what they can do here right now, but also a projection for them where they can be next year,” he said. “I’m very, very pleased with most of those guys who have jumped in.”
In the offseason, Rutherford sought to add a top-six forward to complement Eric Staal. He ultimately added two, and the result has been a fearsome force of two lines – which head coach Kirk Muller often refers to as lines 1A and 1B – that opponents have had a devilish time containing.
Staal, flanked by Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin for the majority of the season, has been a particularly potent threesome. The trio has combined for 23 goals and 30 assists (53 points) and is a collective plus-34. Tlusty led the team with nine goals in February, recording four two-goal outings. All three players rank in the top ten in the league in plus/minus; Staal (plus-12) ranks tied for fifth, and Tlusty and Semin (plus-11) rank tied for ninth through the end of February.
It doesn’t get easier for opponents when the Hurricanes toss Skinner and Jordan Staal over the boards. Skinner, despite missing five games with a concussion, still notched 10 points (3g, 7a) in nine February games. Staal recorded 10 points (4g, 6a), also, scoring his first goal as a Hurricane in Toronto on Feb. 4.
“There are a lot of things you can talk about with Jordan Staal and his value to our team,” Rutherford said. “But you can really see the value to Staal when we’re playing three in four nights and four in six nights. He doesn’t miss a beat. He doesn’t wear down. That’s such a key thing.”
“It’s nice to play with him. He’s an easy guy to play off,” Skinner said when asked about the transition to playing again after injury. “Playing with a guy like Jordan, it makes it a lot easier for me.”
Packed Schedule Ahead
The Hurricanes are five games away from the official halfway point of the season, a mark they will reach just nine days into March.
The pace of the schedule doesn’t ease up after that, either. In total, the Canes will play 14 games in 30 days in March. Of those 14, eight will be played within the division. Through five games, the Canes are winless within the Southeast, a statistic the team knows it needs to change as early as this weekend.
“We haven’t had any good fortune in the division yet, but it will come,” Rutherford said. “We have a better team than some of these teams. It’s just a matter of time until we win some of these division games.”
“Divisional games are big, and if you have two of them in two days, you have to bear down,” Skinner said. “We haven’t done too well against our division so far, so it’s big.
Aside from two days in between games on March 10-11 and four days in between games on March 22-25, the Hurricanes are set to play at least every-other day in a mostly Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday pattern in March. That prefaces an even busier April.
Four of the Hurricanes’ next five games are at home, as the team plays eight of 14 at PNC Arena in March.
“We’ve got some home games coming up this month, so we want to establish the way we want to play at home,” Skinner said. “It should be a fun month, and I think everyone is getting pretty excited for it.”
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