Hurricanes’ 5-0-1 Road Trip Can Be Season’s Turning Point

While the saying is so overused it’s basically a cliche at this point, at times it can still be hard not to overreact to a small sample size. Puck luck sometimes just doesn’t go a team’s way. Injuries and slumps can compound the issues, and the mental aspect probably impacts the team in question as well. Then, a break or one little stretch sees a light bulb switch on, and those struggles feel like distant memories.

All of these can be used to sum up the Carolina Hurricanes‘ up-and-down start to the season. The power play was struggling, and they were severely underperforming their expected goals (xG) by the biggest margin in the league. Alongside injuries to both of their original goalie tandem, and also to their big offseason acquisition before camp even began, as well as slow starts by some of their newcomers, some head-scratching losses began to pile up. Rod Brind’Amour’s teams usually start the season extremely hot, so it’s somewhat understandable that some fans and media began to say, “what’s going on with this team?”

However, after taking 11 of a possible 12 points on an extremely impressive 5-0-1 road trip, suddenly the team sits at 16-6-6, second place in the Metropolitan Division. With a majority of their West Coast time zone games already behind them, the schedule, and a few other key factors we’ll talk about today, have this team set up to make a solid run in both the immediate and further-off future. This is a really good hockey club, and they’re now playing like a really good hockey club. These are some of the biggest reasons why the ship is beginning to be righted.

Good Teams Find A Way to Win

There would have been myriad excuses had the Hurricanes suffered a loss or three on the lengthy West Coast adventure. The team’s best player, Sebastian Aho, missed the last two games. Jesper Fast also got banged up, leaving the team with the infamous 11 forward/seven defensemen lineup that has often not worked out well for the Hurricanes in the past.

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Early in the season, the Hurricanes seemed to find a way to lose some games that they normally completely shut down. Brind’Amour’s team has routinely been amongst the best in the league at shutting things down late in games, refusing to blow late leads by suffocating the opposing offense and allowing them to create next to nothing offensively. On a few occasions this year — blown multi-goal leads to the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames come to mind — the team has seemed to take a breath whilst up a goal or two, and that’s not a good idea in this league, especially against either of those teams.

Now, though? The Hurricanes are beginning to find a way to win, even when they don’t play their best, and even when the cards are stacked against them. For instance, the last game of the road trip saw the Hurricanes take down the rising Detroit Red Wings, 1-0. They didn’t play their best hockey, as the team looked pretty gassed after a very good first period (where they scored the only goal of the game, on the power play). However, most of the shots they allowed came from the perimeter, even when the Red Wings made their push, and their emerging 23-year-old goaltender took care of the rest. Goalie of the future AND of the right-now Pyotr Kochetkov has been spectacular, and, as recently discussed here at THW, is going to make for some very difficult decisions once Frederik Andersen is cleared.

Pyotr Kochetkov Carolina Hurricanes
Pyotr Kochetkov, Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

On the flip side, how about the 3-0 win against the New York Islanders the prior game (and the first half of Kochetkov’s current two-game shutout streak)? When the Hurricanes do have some legs under them, this game served as a clear reminder of how dominant the team can be defensively. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Hurricanes allowed just six high-danger chances, and 1.15 xG, showcasing just how little they allowed New York to create. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, how about a multi-goal deficit turned barnburner early in the road trip, a 2-0 hole that became a 6-4 win against the St. Louis Blues? This team is still not the most potent on offense yet, but the pieces are there for that to change. Signs are already beginning to emerge that they’re on their way to doing so, too.

Depth Scoring Starting to Show Up

One of the bigger stories to the Hurricanes early-season woes was the lack of scoring beyond their star trio of Aho, Martin Necas, and Andrei Svechnikov. Despite the three of them all scoring at or near a point-per-game, and Svechnikov sitting in the top 10 in goals early on before slipping ever so slightly (he’s still tied for 15th), even now the team only sits at 26th in the league at 2.82 goals per game. That rate is slowly starting to improve, though, and a big reason for it is what simply seems like added comfort as the players have gotten their legs under them.

It’s not a new phenomenon for a player to struggle upon their initial arrival with a new team, and that’s definitely been the case for Paul Stastny. The veteran center scored 20 goals last season, but it took him 26 games to net his first as a Hurricane this season. He earned it, though; after a nearly-invisible start to the year, he’d been looking a little better with each passing game for a couple weeks leading up to the visit to Long Island. That was easily his best game with his new team, and he got rewarded with the game-winning goal. While his improved play is surely helped by the fact that he’s playing on the Hurricanes’ top line with Svechnikov and Necas with Aho out, perhaps a bigger chance was a large part of what fueled that emerging play. Nonetheless, the Hurricanes need him, and he’s stepping up at the right time.

Related: Hurricanes’ Necas Stabilizing Offense Amidst Injury Turmoil

Brent Burns sort of falls into this category as well, in fact. Despite the fact that the offensive defenseman has produced in that end basically since the minute he laced ’em up for the Hurricanes, it’s his defensive game that has really taken a step in recent games. Now, Burns isn’t known for his play in that end, but with his big frame, long reach, and veteran savvy, it was expected that he would combine with Jaccob Slavin to create a hellacious top pairing to try to produce offense against. Slavin hasn’t quite been as dominant as usual, with a few more turnovers and defensive lapses than usual from the star defender, but considering the track record, that’s probably just a blip on the radar. In short, the best is probably yet to come from the alternate captain, so it shouldn’t be surprising if both of them really take off soon.

Brent Burns Carolina Hurricanes
Brent Burns, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As Slavin’s mention suggests, it wasn’t just the new players that didn’t start off great. Teuvo Teravainen’s struggles were well-documented before missing nearly a month with an upper-body injury, and even today sits with zero goals in 18 games (along with just eight assists). Despite this, his return clearly added some all-around improvement for the Hurricanes. He’s been essential on the power play as one of the best and most composed passers on the team, and the flow on that unit seems much improved, even without Aho. Perhaps more significantly, though, has been his impact on the penalty kill. That unit was surprisingly shaky early in the year, but have gone 10-of-11 in the four games since “Turbo” returned. That’s not a coincidence, as he’s one of the most underrated defensive players in all of hockey.

Youngsters Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Seth Jarvis both had a similar tough starts, and the dreaded “sophomore slump” phrase began to get thrown around for the latter. He was getting chances, but the finishing we saw in 2021-22 simply wasn’t there. So, instead, he’s turned into an excellent playmaker, I guess?

With skill and swagger to make plays like this, Jarvis was always liable to burst through that year-two wall at any given moment. With eight points in the last 10 games it appears he has done just that, and it’s made the Hurricanes offense look a lot more formidable. The same can be said for Kotkaniemi. While you’d still like to get a bit more production out of him, he’s starting to simplify his game and excel on defense. Plus, he scored a big goal against the Islanders, assisted on the only marker in Detroit, and has even been playing the body regularly. With these two playing in a Hurricanes top six that, at times, has looked a bit thin — especially with the players currently on the injured list — their contributions have been paramount in the recent success.

Luckily for the Hurricanes, those banged up players may be back with the team sooner than later. They’ll be a lot better for it if they continue to get this level of production from Kotkaniemi and Jarvis when those players are back.

Star-Level Help is On the Way

The aforementioned injuries to Aho and Fast appear to be minor, and the latter is reportedly returning to the lineup on Thursday. The Aho injury is at least some cause for concern on the other hand, as it originally seemed day-to-day, but a third-straight absence looms against the Seattle Kraken. With the way the team is playing, though, it’s likely just extra caution to ensure once he returns, he’s back for good and there is no danger of re-injury.

The big news, though, came Wednesday with who joined the team at practice. To the surprise and excitement of many, the team’s big offseason addition, who got hurt working out over the summer, made his first appearance at a full practice as a Hurricane. Max Pacioretty, working his way back from a torn Achilles and not originally expected back until the All-Star Break at the earliest, was wearing a yellow non-contact jersey, but seemed to be a mostly full participant in the proceedings. Needless to say, his return is highly-anticipated, and adding a goalscorer of his caliber to a team that seems to have just about everything in spades, except finishing? It ought to be a pretty perfect fit.

Plus, Andersen also has been practicing and appears close. It’s odd that some have soured on the veteran netminder after a tough start to the season, but, again, beware the small sample size. He played just six games; I put much more stock in his Vezina-caliber 2021-22 season. The upside of a potential Andersen-Kochetkov tandem is enormous, as the Hurricanes have seen the potential of both goaltenders over the last calendar year. They’ll have to figure out what to do with three goalies, and Antti Raanta is likely the odd man out as things currently stand, but that’s a bridge to cross when they come to it.

Frederik Andersen Carolina Hurricanes
Frederik Andersen, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So, to recap: despite some consternation early on, the Hurricanes appear to be rounding into form. They’re starting to get contributions from all over the lineup. The schedule sets up in their favor, with 32 of the last 54 games taking place within the friendly confines of PNC Arena. The stars have largely been excellent (especially the ones at forward), the defense is still suffocating when they need to be, and the goaltending is proving to have a rising star themselves. And all this comes without Pacioretty and (at least the most recent stretch) without Aho. That’s quite possibly two of the Hurricanes best three or four players!

In short, there is very much a big “trending up” arrow next to the Hurricanes’ name. Now, they’ll (finally) get to enjoy a few games back on home ice, with a really exciting four-game stand against current playoff teams in the Kraken (16-9-3), Dallas Stars (17-8-5), and Metropolitan rival Pittsburgh Penguins (17-8-4) next on the docket, before a showdown with the Metropolitan-leading (and second-best record in the league, at 21-6-2) New Jersey Devils. This is a great opportunity to see just how real these improvements are, and might be a very-early playoff preview in some cases. If the recent games are any indication, gear up for a really fun stretch of hockey leading into the holidays.

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