Carolina Hurricanes notes: Kirk Muller’s team still has a lot to play for

(Photo by Andy Martin Jr.)

RALEIGH, N.C.—The 2012 playoffs may be out of reach for the Hurricanes, but that doesn’t mean Carolina doesn’t have a lot to accomplish over the next several months.

2011-12 is turning into a tale of two seasons in Raleigh, the difference between the two being the coach behind the bench. A lot has changed since Jim Rutherford fired Paul Maurice, and while the road to recovery hasn’t been a quick or easy process, Carolina is improving considerably under the guidance of Kirk Muller.

Canes on a hot streak
Hardly anyone has noticed, but the Canes have been playing pretty good hockey as of late, posting a 6-2-2 record in the past 10 games.

“The last 10-15 games, we’re moving in the right direction,” Tim Gleason told after signing a four-year extension with Carolina. “We’re in every game. It’s only going to get better I believe.”

“I think we’ve turned it around the last month,” said Jeff Skinner. “The guys have been working harder. The overall team effort has improved.”

While it will be difficult to climb high up the league standings, we now have reason to believe Carolina’s short-term future can be bright—a notion that didn’t exist a few months ago.

New coach, new results
Now several months into Muller’s tenure as head coach, this team has become a far cry from the one we saw in October and November. No longer is Carolina an uninspired and constantly deflated group, but rather a scrappy and hard working team that can, and will, compete with anyone in the NHL.

“I think we have to look very short-term, game by game,” said Muller. “We need to be hard to play against. We need to play for sixty minutes. We need everyone on board.

“I don’t think we can look long-term right now. We need a consistent level of competing every night, and if we do that, the wins will take care of themselves.”

Defense is the key
The most significant change we’ve seen from the Hurricanes in recent weeks has the play of their defensemen. Allowing a high number of goals against has been Carolina’s’ biggest weakness over the past few years, but signs are beginning to point towards change.

The ‘Canes have allowed 1.7 goals against per game over the past 10 games, quite a difference from their 27th ranked 2.98 season average.

Cam Ward has also taken his game to a higher level, holding opponents to two goals or less over his past 12 starts.

Eric Staal slowly getting better
While Eric Staal may still have a long ways to go to become an All-Star caliber player once again, he’s starting to turn his game around. The Hurricanes captain has 18 points in his past 16 contests—quite a jump in production from his first 16 games in which he only had five points.

“Your team’s playing a lot better, so your confidence is higher.” Staal said of himself. “I was getting those chances (earlier in the year), there were just a lot of negative thoughts going along with it, and that makes it difficult to get the ball rolling int he right direction.

“But it’s good now, so I want to forget about it.”

Carolina will begin a three game road trip on Wednesday when they travel to Anaheim to play the Ducks.

Follow Andrew Hirsh on Twitter: @andrewhirsh