A maddening month of March thrust the Carolina Hurricanes into a sea of adversity.
But, a number of strong efforts and two points to finally show for it at the conclusion of the month have the team pointed in the right direction headed down the stretch of the 2012-13 regular season.
A Tale of Two Cities
The Hurricanes began the month of March winning five of their first six games, outscoring opponents 25-14.
That was an extension of the way the team had played for the vast majority of February. Atop the Southeast Division, the Canes were cruising, proving to be an aggressive, suffocating team that rolled a challenging four lines and six defensemen on a nightly basis.
It was more of the same in the opening 20 minutes of the March 14 game against Washington: Carolina jumped out to an early lead with a pair of goals in the first nine minutes of the game. But the Caps scored a goal in the second period to cut the lead in half and finished off the Canes with a two-goal third period – in which the game-winning goal slid just an inch across the goal line – to claim victory.
That loss, it would seem, killed the Hurricanes’ world-beating confidence.
In the second half of March, the Hurricanes slogged through a winless stretch of seven games, finally tallying in the win column in their final game of the month.
“At the end of the day, we can’t make any excuses,” head coach Kirk Muller said on Monday in Montreal. “We have to find ways to win. We battled through a few of those games and picked up points here and there.”
The winless slide plummeted the Hurricanes to 10th in the Eastern Conference, as Winnipeg asserted the top spot in the Southeast. A win over the Jets on Saturday went a long way into claiming that spot back, however, and time is still on the Canes’ side.
Despite the team’s inconsistent results, Alexander Semin’s production did not waver. The 29-year-old forward led the team in March scoring with 18 points (6g, 12a). He leads the team in assists (24) and ranks tied for second in points (34) and plus/minus (plus-15).
Not wanting to let Semin get close to the open market in the offseason, Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford locked up the Krasnoyarsk, Russia, native through the 2017-18 season with a five-year, $35 million extension on March 25.
“It’s hard to get elite players in this league, and when you look at Alex’s numbers and compare them to the elite players, his numbers season after season are very strong,” Rutherford said in a phone interview last week. “It puts an elite player in the lineup for the next five years, and makes a real strong number one line with Eric and Jiri.”
“I like playing here. It’s a good team for me. It’s a new life,” Semin said in an English interview last week. “Washington is a big city, I know, but this is a good place for me to play hockey.”
An ill-fated constant in this compressed season has been injuries, something every team has faced and will continue to face down the stretch. Unofficially, the Hurricanes rank within the top ten of the league in man games lost with 107 coming into Monday night’s game.
On its face, that statistic is only so informative. It’s who the Hurricanes have lost to injury that is more telling, perhaps none more devastating in March than the injury to goaltender Cam Ward.
After stopping 22 of 24 shots against the Florida Panthers in Raleigh on March 2, Ward was expected to rest on an early Sunday evening tilt in South Florida. Dan Ellis, however, was visibly ill with a flu-like virus, so Ward started. Midway through the second period, forward Jack Skille raced into the Panthers’ offensive zone, defended by Justin Faulk. Skille slid hard into Ward, as the net was dislodged. Ward gingerly got to his feet, but no more than 15 seconds after play resumed, he went down to make a save and had to be helped off the ice.
It was announced the next day that Ward suffered a third-degree sprain of his MCL. The timeline for his return was slated at six to eight weeks, virtually the remainder of the regular season.
Making matters more concerning, Ellis cut himself with his skate while attempting to make a save in the waning minutes of the March 21 game against New Jersey. The laceration required 17 stitches to repair and just missed his MCL, Ellis said. The veteran goaltender missed the team’s last three games of March and will return to the roster beginning Monday in Montreal.
On March 19, Carolina’s defense took a hit as Faulk, the team’s leader in average ice time at 23:23 per game, left the game with a knee injury. It was announced the following day that he had suffered a second-degree sprain of his MCL. Originally thought to be sidelined for four-to-six weeks, Faulk could return to the lineup as early as the end of this week, according to Muller.
“Arguably, he’s probably our best defenseman,” Muller said of the sophomore blueliner. “When you lose your No. 1 goalie and your top D, there’s a little challenge there sometimes.”
The Hurricanes got good news on the injury front, when Tuomo Ruutu returned to the lineup in the latter half of March. In four games, Ruutu tallied three assists, including two on Saturday in Winnipeg. However, the Vantaa, Finland, native left that game with a lower-body injury in the first period and is day-to-day, according to Muller.
“We’ve been using a lot of bodies this year from Charlotte and in our system from forwards to D to goaltenders, so it’s a good evaluation that we’ve been able to have for whole organization, I guess,” Muller said.
Whatever Happened, Happened
There’s no skirting around the unfortunate blemish of a seven-game winless streak.
Yet, even through losing 13 out of a possible 14 points, the Hurricanes find themselves still just a point out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand and four points out of first place in the Southeast Division with three games in hand.
It’s not ideal, considering where the team was at the beginning of March, let alone 15 days ago. But it’s far from the worst-case scenario.
“It’s tough. Any time you’re losing games, it’s frustrating,” Eric Staal said after Saturday’s game in Winnipeg. “We had some good efforts and some inconsistent efforts. We wanted to make sure we kept to a consistent effort, the right frame of mind and the right game.”
Though the Hurricanes found that right frame of mind in Toronto, erasing a two-goal deficit to take a 3-2 lead late in the third period, the result didn’t fall in their favor. Mental fortitude prevailed, as the team broke its slump with a statement-making 3-1 victory in Winnipeg.
“We’ve had a few games like that,” Muller said after the game. “They got rewarded tonight with a big win, and it’s nice to see because they worked hard for it.”
Whatever happened in the past, happened; the team can only move forward from it, and they set that in motion with a win to cap off the month.
“That’s why we play during the season – to learn from mistakes,” Muller said.
The Hurricanes will play 15 games over the course of 27 days in April to round out their 48-game regular season. As if it wasn’t already, this final month will be a mad sprint to the finish line, with the postseason beginning just days after.
Wiping the slate clean, Muller wants his team to be consistently competitive for 15 games. Though it’s difficult to telegraph the final playoff cut line, 20 points in 15 games would likely put Carolina in the postseason. Not to mention, the division is well within reach, as well.
April features three back-to-back sets, all of which result in three-games-in-four-days situations. The Hurricanes will play at least every other day with the exception of a two-day gap in between games on the 13th and 16th. Of the team’s 15 games, eight will be played at home and seven – all one-offs with the exception of a two-game swing through Ottawa and Winnipeg – are on the road.
Five divisional match-ups remain, including two with Washington, two with Tampa Bay and one in Winnipeg on April 18, which could prove to be one of the most pivotal games of the season.
Getting back on track against the Jets in the final game in March should provide a needed boost to the Canes’ confidence heading into a season-deciding April.
“The guys are in the right mindset right now,” Muller said. “They feel good, they feel good about their game and they’re confident.”
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