Highs and Lows from Carolina Hurricanes' 2013-14 Season at Olympic Break
After a two-week break during the 2014 Winter Olympics to heal wounds, gather thoughts and prepare for the stretch run, the 'Canes will have to translate a plethora of learned lessons into ultimate success in the campaign's final 25 regular-season contests.
The first 129 of the season have produced quite the roller-coaster ride for the Hurricanes. A five-game losing streak in late October and a four-game skid in late November counterbalanced a five-game point streak in early November and five- and five-game winning streaks in January.
The season has provided its' share of dramatic moments, both positive—Nathan Gerbe's through-the-legs goal in Philadelphia or Alex Semin's thrilling overtime game-winner on New Year's Eve—and negative—Henrik Zetterberg's game-tying goal with 16.7 seconds left in the home opener or Paul Byron's overtime winner with 3.6 seconds left in Calgary.
From a larger perspective than individual goals, however, what has gone wrong and what has gone right in the Hurricanes' campaign to date? A breakdown of four lows and four highs from 2013-14 so far fall on the coming slides.
Low: Special Teams
The Hurricanes enter the Olympic break ranked 25th in penalty kill and 26th in power play—usually not a recipe for success in the NHL.
Their man-advantage unit has actually gotten worse since John-Michael Liles' arrival, converting on just four of their last 36 attempts (11.1 percent) to fall to 14.2 percent overall efficiency on the season.
The penalty kill has shown more flashes of potential than their special teams counterparts, but their 80.2 percent kill rate still ranks better than just five other clubs.
Two positive notes must be considered: The 'Canes have been a remarkably disciplined squad, conceding the second-fewest opponent power plays, and the 'Canes nine short-handed goals for versus two against is the best split in the league.
However, even when including short-handed goals, the sum of the Hurricanes power play and penalty kill rates still ranks a mediocre 19th. It'll have to improve greatly in March for the 'Canes to surge back into the East's top eight.
High: Anton Khudobin
For a 27-year-old former seventh-round pick making just $800,000 this season, Anton Khudobin has been an absolute blessing from the heavens.
The Kazakhstan native has blossomed in Cam Ward's absence, exploding into Raleigh celebrity status with wins in 13 of his first 18 starts as a Hurricane.
Khudobin's .927 save percentage ranks sixth in the NHL and his 2.14 GAA is spotted eighth. No. 31 has cooled off slightly after his torrid start to the 2014 calendar year, but his presence remains undeniably the most influential aspect of Carolina's general improvement over the past few months.
His 34-save effort against Florida on Friday and 27-save performance versus St. Louis the week before, including a variety of spectacular saves on opposing stars like Nick Bjugstad and Chris Stewart, were both jaw-dropping exemplars of Khudobin's awesome game-changing talent.
Cam Ward deserves his shot at some point, and the back end of back-to-backs (the only situations where Khudobin has struggled) could yield No. 30 a few opportunities. Nonetheless, the 'Canes need to ride Khudobin wherever he can take them this spring.
Low: Overtime/Shootout Performance
The Hurricanes' 4-9 record in games extending past 60 minutes—3-6 in overtimes and 1-3 in shootouts—has continued their perennial pattern of post-regulation struggles.
The team has lost the second point in a number of generally strong efforts as a result of their OT/SO woes, along with the momentum a full win provides.
Combine the squad's overarching weakness of four-on-four play, during both regulation as well as overtime, with their dire lack of shootout specialists, and it seems that overtimes and shootouts may remain an Achilles' heel for years to come if the problems are not fixed.
High: Holding Leads
As I have noted on numerous other occasions this season, the 2013-14 'Canes are fortunately far removed from their "fragile" days of last spring.
Carolina has earned at least a point in 20 of 22 games in which they scored the first goal. Their 16-2-4 overall record when recording the first "1" on the scoreboard ranks 12th.
The team ranks even higher when leading after the first period—their 12-1-2 record when ahead at the first intermission is tied for seventh-best. Their 15-1-3 record when leading after two is also quite respectable.
After jumping out to a 4-0 lead on Ottawa on Jan. 25, the 'Canes loosened their gaps and lost focus, allowing the Senators to pull back within 5-3 at the second intermission. It was just the kind of game that might have slipped through the Hurricanes' grasp in recent years. However, the 'Canes stiffened up and shut down the Sens quite effectively in the third en route to a 6-3 victory.
They'll need to demonstrate just as much lead-holding fortitude in the 25 games ahead to stay competitive in the East.
Low: Meltdown Loss to Columbus (Dec. 23)
December was a month of tremendous frustration for the 'Canes, who played well on most every night but couldn't quite develop the killer instinct to pull out the "W" on a frequent basis.
The frustration boiled over just before Christmas.
In their Dec. 23 meeting with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the 'Canes finally earned a lead in an important divisional home game. In the closing minutes, though, they failed to do the one thing that they had largely done well in the season up to then—hold the lead. Goals with 4:02 and 3:34 left to play gave the visiting Jackets a stunning 4-3 win.
"We beat ourselves," said Kirk Muller in his post-game press conference.
For the holiday break, the entire 'Canes roster was forced to brood upon the letdown.
When they returned to the ice, a great hunger was evident within the ranks. And indeed, in the weeks that followed, that hunger finally began to translate into the win column.
High: Comeback Win over Columbus (Jan. 27)
With wins in nine of their last 12, the Hurricanes entered their Jan. 27 game against the Blue Jackets with a Metropolitan Division playoff spot on the line and an aura of anticipation in the air.
The 'Canes were seeking to end a losing streak against their Ohio rivals that dated back to 2005, and they weren't going to get a better opportunity than on that Monday night.
Yet two Columbus goals, just 17 seconds apart, in the match's first 2:42 took all the life out of PNC Arena and seemed to doom the 'Canes to yet another loss at the hands of the Blue Jackets.
Only the Hurricanes weren't to be quieted that quickly.
After a strong second period failed to yield any cracks in the Jackets' lead, Eric Staal took advantage of a lucky pass to beat Sergei Bobrovsky at last with 8:42 to play—and the goal horn was suddenly ignited.
The Staal brothers scored three times in a 2:47 span, then Anton Khudobin held off a late Jackets response, and the 'Canes clinched a monumental 3-2 win.
Low: Uphill Battle to April
Since their eye-opening win over the Blue Jackets, the 'Canes have sputtered into the Olympic break with only two wins in their last five games.
Twice have the Montreal Canadiens, another bubble team with January concerns of their own, dealt three-goal losses to the 'Canes. Those setbacks, along with a heartbreaking yet oddly lackadaisical 2-1 home loss to the Winnipeg Jets, have dropped Carolina to the bottom of the enormous, tightly-packed cluster fighting for the final Eastern Conference playoff spots.
Seeds No. 6 through No. 13 in the new 16-team East are separated by a mere six points at the break. The Hurricanes' 61 points ties them for 12th. Nonetheless, they trail eighth-place Detroit by just three points and have the advantage of at least one game in hand on every other team in the group.
Sixteen of Carolina's final 25 games are on the road, though, leaving the 'Canes a plethora of obstacles in their push for the postseason. SportsClubStats.com spots the 'Canes a 26.7 percent playoff chance via their weighted method or 37.9 percent chance per their 50/50 method.
High: Playoff Hopes Remain Alive
Indeed, the odds may be against the 'Canes in their quest to play an 83rd game this season.
But, without question, the team's hopes remain not just alive, but entirely feasible.
The Carolina Hurricanes are a franchise known for their spring miracles. From their Eastern Conference championship run of 2002, to their Stanley Cup title of 2006, to their thrilling three-round Cinderella story of 2009, the 'Canes often rise into elite realms as the temperature rises.
On Feb. 9, 2009, the 'Canes had registered 59 points through 55 games. Today, on Feb. 9, 2014, the 'Canes have tallied 61 points through 57 games. A sizable difference? Hardly.
Twenty-five games, 75 periods, 1,500 minutes of opportunity lie ahead for the 'Canes.
More than half will be played against opponents also currently on the outside looking in.
The climb to bring the NHL playoffs back to Raleigh does not resemble the sheer cliffs of Mt. Everest but rather the gentle, wooded slopes of North Carolina's own Appalachians.
The 'Canes have worked their miracles in springs past. This time around, a miracle is not required.
Only a steady, consistent and—most importantly—successful six-week span of hockey is.
And the 'Canes certainly have the ability to achieve that goal.