Hurricanes’ Rough Division Schedule Doesn’t Get Easier

On the surface, things don’t look so bad for the Carolina Hurricanes. They’re currently sitting at eighth place in the NHL. Before beating the Washington Capitals on Saturday, they were on a three-game losing streak, but they won six of seven before that. The problem isn’t their 23-14-2 record. The problem with the Hurricanes is they’re eighth in the NHL, but only just hanging on to the final wild-card spot in an extremely competitive division.

The Hurricanes are in the Metropolitan Division, which happens to be a sea of piranhas this year, but the success of teams like the Capitals, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers is out of their control – except when it isn’t. The ‘Canes are in this position because they have given away invaluable points against Metropolitan Division rivals, and it’s manifesting into a trend that could define their season.

Disaster Within Their Division

When the calendar flipped to November this year, the Hurricanes were off to one of the best starts in franchise history with an 8-3-1 record. But what was especially motivating for Hurricanes fans was the opportunity to rocket up the standings in an incredibly favorable November schedule. The Hurricanes played 15 games in November – 12 of those against Eastern Conference teams – and only three against teams in a playoff position.

The dominoes were all laid out for the Hurricanes to storm through November, but that didn’t happen. Instead, they ho-hummed along to an 8-7-0 record, losing all five games against Metropolitan Division teams. The Hurricanes’ only wins came against the Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Tampa Bay Lightning, Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks.

New Jersey Devils Kevin Rooney Carolina Hurricanes James Reimer Joel Edmundson
New Jersey Devils center Kevin Rooney puts pressure on Carolina Hurricanes goaltender James Reimer and defenseman Joel Edmundson. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Saturday’s 6-4 victory over the Capitals marked the Hurricanes’ first win against a Metropolitan Division team since Oct. 11, when they defeated the New York Islanders in the fifth game of the season. It’s now almost the halfway point, and the Hurricanes have only collected seven out of a possible 22 points against Metropolitan teams.

If there’s good news, it’s that the Hurricanes are 2-0-0 against the Capitals, the NHL’s No. 1 team. But the remaining cast of the Metropolitan has the Hurricanes’ number, and that includes the basement dwellers like the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers.

Carolina Hurricanes vs. DivisionRecordGoals For/GameGoals Against/Game

It doesn’t seem to matter whether James Reimer or Petr Mrazek is in goal, or whether they’re at home or on the road, Carolina has been awful defensively in those games and their goaltending hasn’t been strong enough to bail them out. They’re scoring three goals per game overall, which is about league average, but surrendering 3.72 goals-against per game against Metropolitan teams.

The Hurricanes have had a heavy dose of road games this December, with eight games away from home and five games at PNC Arena. They annihilated Western Conference teams, collecting 13 out of a possible 14 points. But when it came to the games that matter most, they once again fizzled out.

Defensively speaking, the Hurricanes were supposed to be one of the league’s elite teams, but the bottom pairing has been a weak spot that often gets exposed. Jake Gardiner has had his struggles well documented, but Trevor van Riemsdyk is in the same boat – their plus-minus ratings are lowest on the team at minus-seven (van Riemsdyk) and minus-19 (Gardiner).

While playing together, their PDO (sum of team’s shooting percentage and save percentage) is the worst of all of Carolina’s regular pairings at .912. Neither are poor skaters, but often get caught flat-footed, like when Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner danced right through them to score a goal directly off a center-ice face-off back on Dec. 23.

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When it comes to scoring in interdivisional games, offense hasn’t been as great of a roadblock, but players like Nino Niederreiter and captain Jordan Staal continue to have their struggles magnified, and neither have found the back of the net in 11 games against Metropolitan teams. And while Sebastian Aho has been red-hot recently, his five points in 11 divisional games are well below his usual point-per-game average.

Hurricanes Forwards vs Metro TeamsGoalsAssistsPoints
Jordan Staal022
Nino Niederreiter044
Sebastian Aho415

Hurricanes’ Schedule Only Gets Tougher

If there’s a January slump on the horizon, the Hurricanes will have only themselves to blame for not feasting on the weaker teams they faced in the earlier stages of the season. They haven’t fallen into an inescapable pit, and they haven’t suffered any serious injuries. They’re just losing at inopportune times when the stakes are high, and it’s time to kick it into an extra gear or they could find themselves overwhelmed by their back-heavy schedule.

Workload-wise, January will be a lighter month thanks to the all-star break, but as the season progresses, the difficulty of Carolina’s schedule intensifies. The Hurricanes have 11 Metropolitan Division matchups behind them, but face 17 in the final 43 games of the season.

Carolina Hurricanes Petr Mrazek New York Islanders Jordan Eberle
Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek watches New York Islanders’ Jordan Eberle (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

The Hurricanes have yet to play the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights, Dallas Stars or Arizona Coyotes – all of whom are upper-echelon teams. They also play the Bruins, Maple Leafs, and Capitals two more times, and the Islanders three more times before the end of the regular season.

In March alone, the Hurricanes have four back-to-backs, and play the Penguins four times. And for the grand finale, two of their final three games come against the juggernaut Bruins. That final month of the regular season will be the ultimate test for the Hurricanes and will decide whether or not they can position themselves favorably when the playoffs arrive.