The distant postseason dream is slowly fading in Carolina.
The hometown Hurricanes are playing competitively and enthusiastically, but they simply don't appear capable of the once-in-a-lifetime winning streak needed to reach that elusive eighth-place position.
So, in all likelihood, the 'Canes 2011-2012 campaign will go down as the third consecutive season without a playoff appearance. The team's horrible start will, as usual, force this year to be remembered solely as another doomed effort.
But the last five months of hockey have certainly not been for nothing.
While victories may have been scarce and the pain of overtime defeats everlasting, more than a few bright spots have emerged from this up-and-down season of Hurricanes hockey.
Talent-laden stars have found their way into the spotlight, a new coach has brought new-found motivation to the club and success has even been found in some unexpected areas.
And recently, all of those positive signs have blended to create a small yet clearly noticeable influx of passion to the Hurricanes' game.
What optimism can the 'Canes team and community take away as an otherwise-disappointing season winds down? We take a look at the four brightest spots of the '11-'12 journey on the coming slides.
After being continuously hampered by faceoff issues in 2010-2011, the Hurricanes have quietly become one of the league's better teams in the circle this year.
Last season was full of faceoff misery in Carolina, as the squad ranked second-to-last (to only Edmonton) in the NHL with a woeful 44.6 winning percentage—almost three percentage points worse than the next-worst faceoff team, St. Louis. Except for Jussi Jokinen, no 'Canes player was above 50 percent, with even rookie superstar Jeff Skinner winning only 58 of his 157 draws.
However, the new campaign, though ending worse in the standings, has brought tremendous improvement in the faceoff circle. Eric Staal, Jussi Jokinen, Brandon Sutter and the aforementioned Skinner have all improved over four percentage points on their mark from a year ago, and the 'Canes rank ninth in the NHL with a 50.9 win percentage.
Gaining possession after draws has not only led to more time with the puck, but also a few goals, as well. In fact, defenseman Jaroslav Spacek's tally last week against the Buffalo Sabres came a mere second after Jokinen (56.4 percent on the year) won an offensive zone draw early in the first period.
If the Carolina Hurricanes could play every game like they do against the Boston Bruins, they might not have to deal with the predicament they're currently facing.
The playoffs may be a long shot for Carolina, but the 'Canes have proven they are capable of dominating even the most set-in-stone postseason contenders. The Bruins went utterly winless in four attempts to knock off the lowly Hurricanes this year, as Eric Staal & Co. outscored the defending Stanley Cup champions 14-6 in their season series en route to a plethora of victories.
The Hurricanes' play against the Bruins featured a little of everything—five combined goals from franchise cornerstones Staal and Tuomo Ruutu, two goals from defenseman Joni Pitkanen, two goals from fourth-liner Anthony Stewart, and an extremely impressive .970 save percentage on the part of Cam Ward.
Carolina's aggressive forecheck gave Bruins' blueliners fits and Ward stymied Boston's high-powered offense until his team could regain their footing. At times, the opposition simply wasn't able to keep their cool, such as in Boston's whopping 72 PIM outburst (including four 10-minute misconducts) on October 18th.
All in all, the four-game series perfectly exemplified the type of scrappy, opportunistic club the Hurricanes hope to eventually become—and, if all goes well, offered Caniac Nation an exciting and uplifting look into the future of this team.
Back on the 6th of October, the only mention of Justin Faulk in our Carolina Hurricanes' season preview set forth his statistical projection for the upcoming campaign: eight appearances, no goals and one assist.
Looking back five months later, those expectations were clearly a little too low.
In reality, Faulk has opened many an eye in his NHL debut season, leading all league rookies with an average of 22:49 of ice time per game (a minute and a half more than second place Marco Scandella). As for his stat line, the 19-year-old Minnesota-Duluth product has eight goals, five of which were on the power play, and 11 assists in 54 games—perhaps slightly better than our initial prediction.
With aging Bryan Allen and Jaroslav Spacek set to become free agents this summer and oft-injured Joni Pitkanen high on the trade bait list, Faulk appears poised to become one of the Hurricanes' defensive centerpieces next season.
He certainly deserves it.
Despite the minor injury that's kept him out of the 'Canes past two games, Jiri Tlusty's breakout season has been quite a pleasant surprise in Raleigh.
After being drafted 13th overall by Toronto in 2006, Tlusty's career path never seemed to take an upward turn; a sex scandal forced a trade to Carolina in late 2009, and, heading into this season, the now-23-year-old winger had just 38 points in 149 appearances over the course of four seasons.
Conversely, 2011-2012 has brought production like never before. Tlusty, still very young and promising, has found a connection with Eric Staal and earned a spot on the first line. His ice time has skyrocketed from 9:51 per game last season to near 20 minutes in recent weeks.
Moreover, Tlusty's scoring touch has shot through the roof. The Czech Republic native is one point away from doubling his previous career best in points—16, in his rookie year of '07-'08. Those totals of 15 goals and 31 points both rank fourth on the team as well, and his noteworthy plus-six rating is the best that Carolina has.
So while this season has brought production dips from many expected-top-six forwards, Tlusty's emergence as a real contributor to the team makes his last-second contract extension last July—at minimum wage, no less—seem like a stroke of Jim Rutherford brilliance.