Many hockey fans, including myself, had written off the Canes playoff chances a while back and had started to put our attention elsewhere, looking at possible moves the Canes could make at the trade deadline and possibilities for the upcoming 2016 draft.
Was highly sought after Eric Staal going or staying? Was Cam Ward a good choice for play-off bound teams seeking goaltending for the stretch run? How about Ron Hainsey or John Michael Liles as veteran defenceman adds for teams looking for that? Would others be available to the highest bidder in a Hurricanes rebuild scenario? And, at the draft, would the Canes drop low enough to have an opportunity for Austen Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk or Jesse Puljujärvi?
Sure, they had made quiet progress in a number of areas under Head Coach, Bill Peters, and President, Ron Francis, but the potential of getting into the play-offs this year seemed remote, at best.
But, maybe, just maybe, we jumped the gun.
After recent back-to-back wins over the Devils and Black Hawks, the Canes had reduced the gap to mere 8 points with 45 games remaining. Not insurmountable by any means, especially considering their much-improved play of late, 7-5-1 in December. A tough 3-2 road loss to the Devils didn’t help, (would have put them within 5 of the wildcard) but if the Canes can mount a good run, and they are showing signs they are going in the right direction, anything is possible.
So, what’s fueling the Canes recent success and can they sustain it?
Clearly, the team has bought into coach Bill Peters’ philosophy and are consistently ”starting on time” and “playing hard”, as he demands. They are playing as a team and, for the most part, putting in a 60-minute effort on a regular basis. Opposing teams are finding the Hurricanes to be a tough out. Not to be missed in all of this were the subtle player moves made by Peters and President, Ronny Francis, just prior to this recent run. The total commitment to youth on the defence, the addition of Phil Di Giuseppe on the 3rd line, the permanent move of Eric Staal to his more familiar center spot, and the emergence of a solid 2-way 2nd line anchored by Jordan Staal, playing his best hockey as a Cane, and featuring youngsters Andrej Nestrasil and Joaquim Nordstrom, both growing into their roles nicely with each passing game, have all played a key role in the team’s success. Add to that, the resurgence of enigmatic Jeff Skinner and the picture looks decidedly different than earlier this year when the team struggled nightly. And, the goaltending has been much improved of late.
So, can the Canes climb the mountain back into the play-off race?
Looks like Bill Peters has created strong competition on the 4th line. He is looking for more from this unit. Chris Terry, Riley Nash, and Brad Malone continue to battle it out for the 2 open spots. Surprised that Malone is not a lock. He has been an impact player in many of the games he has played but Peters seems to want more. Nash is starting to look more comfortable on the right side and could be a replacement for Jay McClement, should the Canes move him at the deadline. Terry is working hard to re-invent himself as a 4th liner, more of a grinder than offence first player. He is still a work in progress.
Next up, an in-depth look at the Canes Kiddie Corps on defence.
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