When the calendar turned to the month of December, the Montreal Canadiens were in first place in the NHL standings, a full 12 points clear of the last playoff spot. The Carolina Hurricanes, on the other hand, were tied for last place in the Eastern Conference and pretty much where everyone predicted they’d be, battling hammer and tong for the right to draft Auston Matthews first overall.
So here we are a mere 52 days later and the Hurricanes flew into the eye of the storm – they’re due for six inches of the white stuff in Raleigh tonight – Thursday night after a sluggish 1-0 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs tied with the Canadiens with 50 points. That has more to do with the Canadiens ineptitude over the past month-and-a-half to be sure, but to chalk it up to that exclusively would be to ignore the fact that the Hurricanes are indeed a group that is coming together a little quicker and a little more dramatically than everyone thought they would.
The only real downside is that as well as the Hurricanes have performed lately, they were seven points out of a playoff spot after going 8-12-4 through the first two months of the season. Despite going 13-7-4 since, the Hurricanes have clawed past just two teams and are still three points in arrears of a playoff spot. But what seemed like a pipe dream not long ago is becoming more of a realistic hope.
“I think we’re doing something right,” said defenseman John-Michael Liles. “You can see the battle level and the guys are really starting to believe what we’ve got going in the room.”
The Hurricanes have played 10 games in January and have picked up points in eight of them. And while it has vaulted them into the playoff conversation, it also has the potential to create quite the conundrum for them. As in, what do they do with Eric Staal? When the Hurricanes were wallowing in the basement of the league, it seemed a slam-dunk that Staal would be dealt by the trade deadline. But what are the Hurricanes to do if they keep in the race and within striking distance of a playoff spot? What would they be telling their fans in a year in which they’ve struggled to attract fans if they trade the marquee player in the middle of a run for a post-season berth?
Conversely, what if they hang onto to Staal for said playoff run, gambling he might be the player to put them into that position, and they miss? They’ll also lose out on Staal and get nothing in return. And as much as Staal has struggled to create offense this season, any team serious about contending for the Stanley Cup would be salivating at the thought of adding Staal as a rental at the deadline.
“Six-foot-four centerman who makes plays, can play the wing,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said recently in a radio interview. “Teams need that, and this team needs that.”
That’s a matter for another day, though. The Hurricanes are reveling in their success and so they should. It likely won’t mean much of a bump in attendance, though. The Hurricanes have had six announced crowds under 10,000 this season and rely hugely on the walk-up on game day. But six inches of snow is enough to cripple a place such as Raleigh and they have the Rangers at the PNC Arena Friday night. Then on Sunday, they’ll be going head-to-head with the NFC championship game, which kicks off 40 minutes after the opening faceoff in nearby Charlotte.
Too bad because those who can’t or won’t go to the game are missing out on a team that is coming together nicely. The young defense corps is holding up quite nicely without James Wisniewski and the Hurricanes, their past two games notwithstanding, are scoring more and taking the game to teams a little more. They’re certainly a far better possession team than they were last season and early in this one.
“When we play properly and play hard, we’re in every game,” Peters said. “We’re in a good spot right now. We’re in a good position as long as we continue to play well. We have to play better as we go along here.”