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Carolina Hurricanes Improving, but Breaking Even May Still Be a Struggle

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst INovember 24, 2009

RALEIGH, NC - NOVEMBER 19:  Ray Whitney #13 of the Carolina Hurricanes skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the RBC Center on November 19, 2009 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After so many losses, so many disappointments, and so much frustration, the Carolina Hurricanes are finally managing to get back on track.

Following a 14-game losing skid, including a seven-game pointless streak, the Hurricanes had fallen to the bottom of the NHL in almost every category, including the most important one—the standings.

But, recently, Carolina has begun to right the ship.

The Canes have points in their last five games, going 3-0-2 during that span. That stretch has included several fantastic games, including two three-goal comebacks after falling behind 3-0 at the first intermission both times.

Carolina broke their pointless streak against the Islanders, but fell 4-3 in overtime. Then they broke their record-tying losing streak against Minnesota, where they won in a shootout after blowing leads of 3-0 and 4-1.

The Hurricanes later held a 2-1 lead in Montreal until the final few minutes, but gave up a late goal and fell in the sixth round of a shootout.

Against Toronto, Carolina went on a roller-coaster ride at home in the RBC Center.

The Hurricanes trailed 3-0 after the first period, and then recovered by scoring two goals but still trailing 3-2 after the second.

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A power play goal by Toronto gave them a 4-2 advantage with 12 minutes remaining, but two goals by Tim Gleason (doubling his goal total from last year in one game; he now has four this season) tied it for Carolina.

Ian White sapped all the life out of the Canes with his lucky goal with 29 seconds remaining, but Eric Cole's rebound stunner with two seconds to go revived Carolina, who won decisively, 2-0, in the shootout in a wild 6-5 victory.

The Hurricanes still had just one regulation win, which came in the fourth game of the season after a 7-2 walloping of the Panthers. However, Manny Legace finally came out with a solid effort Saturday night against Tampa Bay and stopped 20-of-21 shots for a 3-1 win.

The Hurricanes' players have also been starting to pick up their pace and get the stats rolling recently.

Brandon Sutter, the 21-year-old son of Calgary head coach Brent Sutter, has been on fire for Carolina after being called up earlier this year.

Sutter's top line companions, Eric Cole and Ray Whitney, have also been playing well recently. Whitney leads the team with 15 points (6 goals, 9 assists) and had a beautiful tape-to-tape pass to set up the tying power play goal against Tampa on Saturday.

Cole has overcome a very slow start and scored the game-saving goal with two seconds remaining against Toronto last week.

Jussi Jokinen has 14 points on the year and is currently riding a four-game point streak. Jokinen had a goal against Tampa off a tip from Hurricanes' leading scoring Joe Corvo, who has 11 points and is now helping out on the back end after starting out the year near -15.

Corvo's defensive companions have been improving after struggling in the first one-and-a-half months.

Aaron Ward picked up several assists this past week and is finally starting to show the physicality we've been waiting for. Andrew Alberts has recovered somewhat from a pathetic October, as well.

Joni Pitkanen has become a star at both ends of the ice for Carolina and is becoming a key part of the defense, as well as on the rush.

Several players have also recently picked up their first goals of the season.

Stephane Yelle knocked the puck in on a great sliding effort against Toronto last week, and Chad LaRose, the perfect poster boy for Carolina's season, notched his first goal in 64 shot attempts to seal the deal against Tampa Bay.

However, many will say that the box score is not the only factor to consider, and they're right.

On the other hand, though, the Canes' chemistry is also improving. Sergei Samsanov is becoming a key passer and play-maker for the power play, which is on a 6-for-26 streak after failing to convert on 26 straight beforehand.

Tim Gleason is also becoming a leader for Carolina, and is expanding all areas of his play, from hits to the power play to defense.

The Hurricanes have also now their record in Raleigh to 5-5-2, and might have found stable ground once again at home. They had six points in four games in a 4-of-5 game homestand, which included several impressive moments.

However, the rest of the continent has been very ugly for Carolina, who still has not yet earned a road win this season at 0-7-3. They have picked up overtime points in Long Island (NY), Montreal, and Minnesota, but have just three points in 10 games away from the RBC Center.

The road record is just another reminder that despite all the improvement, the season is still not nearly under control.

Injuries have taken their toll on Carolina, putting them in tough spots at several positions.

Both listed goaltenders at the start of the season are out, with backup Michael Leighton gone for at least another week with a strained groin and team leader Cam Ward ailing with a sliced thigh.

Ward is hoping to return against Vancouver on Dec. 5, which will be a relief for Canes' fans, who have been feeling the pain of not having support in the net while aging Manny Legace does his best to keep the pucks out.

Veteran Scott Walker is also gone for several games, and, more importantly, so is Eric Staal, an annual All-Star and the team leader for Carolina since the Stanley Cup run of 2006. Staal has already missed eight games and should miss at least two more until his projected return later this week.

Carolina is struggling in several stat categories that are affecting the scoreboard. The Hurricanes have scored, on average, just 2.27 goals per game this year, while giving up over 3.5 goals.

If the Hurricanes score at least three goals, something that has occurred only seven times this year, they are 4-1-2. But when they score two or less (including three shutouts), they are a miserable 1-11-3.

Many individual players are also contributing to these struggles. Only two Hurricanes currently have positive +/- ratings (Ruutu and Walker), while 15 are at or below -3 (including five in double-digits).

Though Carolina has been much better in the past two weeks, they are still definitely in the cellar of the league. There is room for improvement and a chance to pull even with the middle of the pack.

An 11-5 record in their next month of games would get Carolina back to .500 in the standings by Christmas, which would definitely set up 2010 as a year of possibilities.

The tight upcoming schedule will give the Hurricanes plenty of opportunities to pick up an all important two points, with dates against Dallas, Anaheim, Atlanta, and Buffalo in the next six days.

It's been a bumpy roller-coaster ride through the first quarter of the 09-10 NHL season for the Carolina Hurricanes, and there's definitely going to be more speed bumps the rest of the way.

But, for now, we will just have to sit back and see down which path the unpredictable Carolina Hurricanes will take us.

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