With a 12-7-5 record since December 23, the Carolina Hurricanes have quietly been playing great hockey, on pace for a 99-point season during this span.
Newly-hired coach Kirk Muller has successfully changed the culture in Raleigh and, while it took a while to translate onto the ice, the players have bought into his system and become a winning team in the process.
“I think we’ve turned it around,” said Jeff Skinner. “The guys have been working harder. The overall team effort has improved.”
"We’re moving in the right direction,” Tim Gleason told ESPN.com. “We’re in every game. It’s only going to get better I believe.”
Carolina, despite having nearly the same roster, has been a completely different club than the one we saw in October and November.
During the beginning of the season, they were unmotivated and apathetic, and it showed in their record. But their mental toughness has skyrocketed under Muller's guidance, and so has their ability to match up with even the strongest opponents night in and night out.
Not only are they winning more often, but they've developed a level of consistency that was absent during Paul Maurice's tenure. Since the start of the new calendar year, Carolina has only lost two games by more than one goal. That contrasts quite a bit to their first two months of the season, when they lost 11 games by multiple scores.
This improved work ethic speaks to how well Muller has gotten his message through to his players. It's not an easy task to get a last-placed team to play as hard as they have, but he's pulled it off. Some might have had their doubts about hiring Muller instead of an experienced NHL coach, but it's become clear that he was the right choice.
With a ton of young talent and stability behind the bench, this franchise is in much better shape than many believe at this point.
Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk—both just 19 years old—have already become two of Carolina's most valuable players, and prospects like Ryan Murphy and Victor Rask are very close to having similar impacts.
And with a high draft pick this summer, Jim Rutherford will add another promising teenager to the mix. If all this youth is managed properly, there is no reason Carolina can't put together one of the strongest cores in the NHL.
Despite the Hurricanes' recent success, it has been frustrating to see them unable to move up the standings. But that may be for the best: If Carolina can continue to play well but can keep their high position in the draft lottery, it would be a win-win situation.
But the Canes aren't thinking too far into the future. Muller prefers to take the process game by game.
“I don’t think we can look long-term right now," he said. "We need a consistent level of competing every night, and if we do that, the wins will take care of themselves.”
Andrew Hirsh is a contributor for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first hand unless noted otherwise.
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