Hurricanes Are Legit Contenders

When the Carolina Hurricanes take the ice these days, it’s different from the past several seasons. After all, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that the Hurricanes are essentially in the playoffs now, and the importance of each game is magnified going forward.

Bettman was in Raleigh on Feb 26.  There were 20 games left in this season at that time, and the Hurricanes started their “playoff run” as Bettman called it with a win that night over the Los Angeles Kings. They have gone 5-1-1 since, including that win.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (Mark Shiver/THW)

As of this writing, the Hurricanes are in the first wild-card position in the Eastern Conference with 83 points. They have 13 games left, including their Friday night contest against the Columbus Blue Jackets who are in a playoff chase of their own.

Hurricanes Goaltending Is Legit

Petr Mrázek and Curtis McElhinney have been quite the goaltending tandem. A large part of the reason for the Hurricanes’ success is having consistent goaltending. Mrázek has four shutouts this season and McElhinney has two. Their combined six shutouts in one season is glaring when compared with a total of six shutouts for Cam Ward from the start of the 2012-13 season through the 2017-18 season — his last with the Hurricanes. Ward has zero shutouts this season with the Chicago Blackhawks.

One of my media colleagues remarked early on that the Hurricanes’ offense might not feel as much pressure with Scott Darling supposedly ready to go at the beginning of the season. Darling, the former goaltender who never got his game right with the Hurricanes, often put the offense in the position of having to score three or four goals every outing. That was an added game pressure that is difficult for any team to overcome.

The ‘Canes are not feeling that pressure this season. Obviously, Mrázek and McElhinney cannot be expected to earn a shutout every time out, but it’s nice to be free of the pressure from scoring “X” amount of goals just to be in the game. McElhinney was brought in as a “fix” to the goalie corps when Darling was out with an injury. The fix has turned into a permanent goaltending solution with McElhinney and Mrázek being a tandem that has the Hurricanes legitimately eyeing a playoff spot.

In December I wrote, McElhinney has single-handedly changed the environment from upheaval to stability. Together he and Mrázek have given the team confidence in the goaltender position, something the Hurricanes have needed for quite some time.

The Hurricanes’ Chaotic Brand of Hockey Has Settled

When this season started, new coach Rod Brind’Amour had the Hurricanes playing a wide-open brand of aggressive, offensive hockey. I called it a chaotic brand of hockey as the offense appeared to be wild and directionless but on closer inspection showed a control that made sense. It was forechecking without apology. The only problem was that it produced a gaudy number of shot attempts but not many goals.

By the end of December, the Hurricanes were downcast and wondering where their season was headed. It seemed headed for the same end as last season, and the season before that, and on and on and on. Maybe the hockey gods were testing the team’s frustration level, but we may never know why the potent offense that was easily taking the most shots in the league was not scoring enough to win. But then came the new year.

Things changed in January and the ‘Canes have not looked back. The chaos is gone and the team is shooting about as many times as their opponents. The difference is that they are scoring and winning. Kevin Allen of USA Today Sports wrote a few days ago, “The Hurricanes are 13-3-1 in their last 17 games and have been a spirited group, leading to a 12 percent jump in attendance.”

A good example of the team’s season was, the 8-1 butt-kicking they took at home by the Winnipeg Jets last week and how they responded. They had a game the next night against the Nashville Predators, and they beat the Predators handily, 5-3, in Nashville.

Curtis McElhinney, Blake Comeau, Radek Faksa
Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Curtis McElhinney (AP Photo/LM Otero)

According to Allen, GM Don Waddell said of the team’s bounce-back game: “We got spanked in Winnipeg when we played our worst game of the year and then we bounced in Nashville in a pretty tough environment with one of their better games of the year.” This is the essence of the Hurricanes’ season. They got spanked in December and bounced back and have played some of their best hockey in years ever since.

The Hurricanes are shooting and scoring and winning. Their goaltenders are playing stout hockey. They  are a legit playoff contender. We’ll see if they can close out the season as such.