That is not a misprint. The Carolina Hurricanes really are looking at a playoff having been toiling around .500 just after Christmas. They suffered a bad loss at the hands of the New Jersey Devils. Carolina was 15-17-5 after 37 games and had a miniscule chance of making the postseason. Fast forward to today and the Hurricanes garner two more points after a home win against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night. That gives them 85 points through 71 games (a 39-25-7 record).
So, the last 34 games have seen Carolina go 24-8-2. That is quite a job by Rob Brindamour and the Hurricanes as a team. They have scored three or more goals in 26 of those contests. That is unlike any Carolina team of the last decade. Let that sink in for a minute. First, it is time to focus on the goaltenders.
Carolina’s last line of defense
Goaltending has been better as well. Petr Mrazek has turned his season around after the All-Star Break. His record is 8-3 in his last 11 starts with a 1.99 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. Before the break, Mrazek was a .500 goalie and featured just a 2.81 goals-against and .894 save percentage.
The goaltender has some odd splits including a 10-3-2 mark versus the Western Conference while allowing just over two goals a game. His kryptonite is the Atlantic Division where he is 5-6 with AHL caliber numbers across the board.
Then there is Curtis McElhinney. McElhinney has been a bit up and down since Christmas but part of that is due to injuries. The Carolina goaltender did go 5-1 in February allowing just nine goals and posting two shutouts. He has been a bit up and down in March but that is where Mrazek has picked up the slack. The duo has produced above-average goaltending just enough to buoy Carolina. Even after an awful performance by Carolina and McElhinney against Winnipeg, the goalie bounced back stopping 35 of 37 shots against Buffalo. It is those performances that have kept Carolina from reverting to their old ways. Then, there is the offense like mentioned above which has carried the Hurricanes so much.
The rise of the Carolina offense
Sebastian Aho is a huge part of this Carolina surge in offense, but Nino Niederreiter was a big catalyst. Add in Justin Williams and the top line has created some serious havoc. Niederreiter has 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 25 games. The most important thing is the winger is hitting the net. He fired 77 shots on net in those contests with Carolina. Niedereiter had just 81 in 46 games with the Minnesota Wild. His ice time has spiked upward along with his confidence. El Nino is back!
Let’s return to the season Aho is having. The Finnish forward has 78 points in 71 games including 30 goals and 216 shots on net. He has 22 points on the power play which is a career high. By the way, he is only 21! The forward still has nearly a decade of prime years ahead of him. Carolina has always had some of the most ridiculous possession metrics but this year, Aho is nearly 4% above the team relative. Add in the fact that the team is shooting 10.5% at even strength when he is on the ice. Anything above 10% is elite basically. Aho is only going to get even better.
After Saturday night, Carolina has 212 goals in 71 games or basically 2.99 goals per game. Since after Christmas, the Hurricanes averaged 3.53 goals per match. Teams like Washington, Tampa Bay, and Toronto can score at that pace. No one expects Carolina to pull that off and they have done so over the last two plus months. This is more than a fluke.
Again, a big part of this is that top line led by Sebastian Aho. The acquisition of Nino Niederreiter allowed other players to go back into roles they were more suited for as well. Carolina could very well end up with five 20+ goal scorers when the season is finished. Niederreiter could still come close to 15 after the trade deadline which would be impressive.
No one can forget Teuvo Teravainen, who makes for a great complement to Aho. He has 65 points on the season and is on his way to 70+ points with ease. Tervainen likely also ends up with 20+ goals when all is said and done along with 50+ assists or close. The first line plus a good bit of depth has led this onslaught few saw coming. The Hurricanes have spun up the offense. Their defense has helped in creating some of that magic.
Lastly there is the defense
The defense has turned and created some offense behind Justin Faulk and Dougie Hamilton. These two players have combined for 21 goals between them. While they do not have the outrageous point totals of some offensive defensemen, the duo has been very effective (28 and 30 points respectively by the way). Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have combined for 51 points. So, that is 109 points from their top-four defenseman. That is not bad at all. Again, this is not elite but when you combine how well they play defensively, the numbers look that much better.
It is a core defense that prides itself on moving the puck up the ice to set up the offense. There should be no surprise as to why Carolina generates the most shots per game in the league. It starts from their blueline. They are just physical and smart enough to keep most of the high-danger chances and shots away. The Carolina defense excels at keeping possession and turning defense into offense.
These are the reasons why the Carolina Hurricanes might just spin up a little trouble come playoff time. Carolina’s Stanley Cup futures comes in at +2000 now. It was +5000 on January 1st. Each night that passes, they get closer and closer to ending their postseason drought. It’s been a long time coming.
By Chris Wassel