The holidays were a cheerful time for the Carolina Hurricanes (17-15-4, ninth in the Eastern Conference) this time around. The 'Canes finished out their December 7-4-1 in total; excluding an uncharacteristic three-game losing streak, that record would have been an amazing 7-1-1.
They've won six of their last nine games, including a 5-1-0 record on the road, a category in which the Hurricanes were 2-13-4 on this day last season.
After being shut out in both of their first two home games of the season, Carolina hasn't been held scoreless in over two months, and has built on incredible Cam Ward performances to earn two shutouts of their own, both on the road, since then. The defense, and Ward, have also improved since allowing 4.33 goals per game in a twelve game stretch earlier in the year.
A season-high four-game winning streak with victories over St. Louis and Anaheim and third-period comeback wins over Florida and Atlanta that went on before Christmas was snapped by a poor Justin Peters effort in a 5-1 drubbing in Tampa Bay, and two more 3-2 losses to Montreal and Washington at the RBC Center put the 'Canes back into a downward spiral.
Eric Staal has used the chilly weather to start to run away with the team scoring lead and also earn a spot among the top scorers in the NHL in this still-young 2010-2011 season. Staal has 36 points, 10 more than second-place Jussi Jokinen and Jeff Skinner, and 18 goals, double Jeff Skinner's nine tallies, the second best on the team. Staal is on pace for 82 points, a point-per-game ratio, and 41 goals, his best numbers since the 'Canes' '05-'06 Stanley Cup winning season.
Tuomo Ruutu may have been the hottest 'Cane, though, putting up eight points over his last nine games despite a three-game scoreless drought in the middle of that. As those statistics show, he's had two different streaks with four points in three games, including an ongoing one right now. Ruutu is also laying the body day in and day out this season, putting up 133 hits, the second-best total in the league.
Joni Pitkanen hasn't had a point in any of Carolina's last four games, but he did have a stretch between Nov. 17 and Dec. 18 where he managed a mention on the box score in 10 of his 14 appearances. Most of those mentions were assists, just as they were last year, as he has 16 already (compared to just two goals) and is on pace for 36 or 37 for the year as a whole, just a few short of last season's 40.
Pitkanen, a defenseman, is handling his defensive responsibilities much better this time around, however. He is at plus-seven, a massive step up from his minus-11 a year ago, and is tied for the team lead with 61 blocked shots.
The Hurricanes' most underrated D-man this year has most certainly been Tim Gleason. Despite playing for Team USA in the Olympics last February, Gleason has made goal-saving play after goal-saving play this entire season, especially recently, proven by his plus-four rating over this last back-to-back sequence. Gleason also has stayed a physical player, currently sitting second on the team with 93 hits.
Erik Cole has also had a rebound season from his injury-plagued '09-'10 campaign, with 16 points, a plus-three rating, and a team-high 29 takeaways on the year and points in four of his last six games. Brandon Sutter has followed in his footsteps despite a still-going five-game scoreless skid, posting a team-high plus-10 rating after being in the negatives for almost all of last year.
Jussi Jokinen is second on the team in points, but he's been in a drought nonetheless, only snapping an 11-game streak of no goals with a fast break score against Washington. His struggles continue, though, with an injury that could keep him out for a few games.
While most all of these statistics are nice to see, it's been Cam Ward that's been the team's savior this whole year, in all truth. Ward is 16-11-3, placing him eighth among goaltenders in wins—a decent record, but on a top-level team, he would be absolutely dominant.
His goaltending numbers are phenomenal despite facing the second most shots of any goaltender in the NHL this season, with 943 saves, ranking second among all goalies, and a .927 save percentage, ranking third.
He's faced more than 35 shots seven out of his last 10 full games, but had save percentages throughout the span that are just off the charts, such as 100 percent last night against Ottawa (37 saves out of 37 shots), 95.6 percent on Dec. 16 vs. Anaheim (43 out of 45), 95.7 percent on Dec. 14 vs. Atlanta (45 out of 47), 97.4 percent on Dec. 11 vs. St. Louis (38 out of 39), 96.6 percent on Dec. 10 vs. Dallas (28 out of 29), and 97.1 percent on Dec. 3 vs. Colorado (34 out of 35).
Analyzing the Statistics
The Hurricanes remain last in the NHL in faceoffs with a dismal 42.6 winning percentage, but have improved over four percent in that category over the last month; it's still not too great, but at least it's progress.
The team has remained nearly impeccable with the lead, as they hold a 12-1-2 record when scoring first, a 9-0-1 record when leading at the first intermission, and an undefeated 10-0-0 record when leading at the second break. While the 5-14-2 record when allowing the first goal certainly isn't preferable, Carolina is actually 3-2-0 over their last five games when they did not score first.
The 'Canes haven't been in a shootout (or overtime, for that matter) in six straight games, a fairly long streak for the most shootout-prone team in the league, but have won their last two games in that scenario after starting the year 1-4 in them. Jussi Jokinen ended a streak of shootout attempt misses that lasted more than 12 months a few weeks ago in St. Louis, and then scored again a week later in Atlanta.
With Patrick O'Sullivan gone a while back through waivers, the 'Canes have demoted Tuomo Ruutu from the third slot after a string of failures and have been searching for the player to complete the shootout trio already founded on Jokinen and Jeff Skinner. With Sergei Samsonov (7-for-21 all-time) netting the winner in Atlanta, he may have found the job. Eric Staal (2-for-14, but a great player in general), Brandon Sutter (tried his first attempt earlier this year), Chad LaRose (1-for-1, tried it last spring), Erik Cole (1-for-5), and Tuomo Ruutu (8-for-19) may also be in contention.
Discipline is still a strong point heading into the New Year, with Carolina averaging only 10.6 penalty minutes per game, the fifth-fewest among all 30 teams, but have committed a major penalty in four of their last six games, with two of those being non-fighting infractions, and gave up eight penalties on December 18 to Anaheim and seven misdemeanors on Dec. 28 to Toronto.
As always, the special teams remain weak, with the power play tied for 21st at 16.2 percent and the penalty kill ranked 27th at 78.2 percent. The addition of Ryan Carter from the Ducks has helped considerably with the latter category, but the other unit never fails to surrender enough goals for the entire 'PK' combined.
Despite being the second youngest and second lightest team in the NHL, the Hurricanes remain a physical presence, with the eighth-most hits and the 13th-most blocked shots. The 'Canes are also faring well in the turnover count, giving up the eighth-fewest giveaways while earning the sixth-most takeaways.
Jiri Tlusty has missed Carolina's last six games and hasn't played in two weeks with an upper body injury, but he's expected to be out at least another week or so and perhaps make his return on Jan. 7 against the Panthers.
Jussi Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen, both day-to-day, also missed Wednesday's win in ScotiaBank Place.
The schedule remains concentrated for the Hurricanes, who will play every other day from Jan. 1 all the way to Jan. 17, a stretch spanning nine games. In other words, the 'Canes will play on every odd-numbered day of the calendar month until the 19th and never play a game on a even-numbered day until the 18th.
The Hurricanes will play seven of their next 11 games at home, and there's a reason for that, as they've had only 14 home games (although officially 15; one game was in Helsinki, Finland) compared to 22 road games. Oddly enough, however, they are better on the road, with a 10-8-3 record there compared to 7-7-1 at the RBC Center.
Caniacs will be able to see Carolina take on worst-in-the-NHL New Jersey (9-25-2, 15th in the East) on New Year's Day, just hours after the conclusion of the Winter Classic between the Penguins and Capitals. The Hurricanes will then host Florida (16-17-1, 12th in the conference) on the third and visit the Panthers' BankAtlantic Center on the seventh, sandwiching a visit to Madison Square Garden to play the Rangers (22-14-2, sixth in the East).
A home matinee on Sunday, Jan. 9 with Atlanta (19-14-6, seventh in the East) will be followed by another game in Raleigh two days later with the Calgary Flames (16-18-3, 14th in the Western Conference), one of the 'Canes' mere three remaining games against Western opponents (they've already played 15).
Carolina will then visit Buffalo (15-18-4, 11th in the conference) on the 13th in HSBC Arena, a place where the 'Canes have struggled over recent seasons, and then host Tampa Bay (21-11-5, fifth in the East) that Saturday for, strangely, the first time this year. The Hurricanes will then take the next day off before a home-and-home two-game series with the Boston Bruins on the 17th in Raleigh and the 18th up in Massachusetts.
Heading into 2011, Carolina is sitting in ninth place in the conference with 38 points in 36 games. They have a two-point lead over, with two fewer games played than, 10th-place Ottawa (as well as the head-to-head tiebreaker) and a four-point lead with one game in hand on 11th-place Buffalo.
In terms of fighting their way into the playoff picture, the Hurricanes have four points to make up on eighth-place Montreal, with one fewer game played, and six points to make up on seventh-place Atlanta with three fewer games played.
Happy holidays, and cheers to a Hurricanes playoff run in the New Year!
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his two years so far with the site, he has written over 245 articles and received over 235,000 total reads.