With the 2014 Winter Olympics finished up, it’s time for the Carolina Hurricanes to shake off their Olympic hangover and remember they’re still five points out of a playoff spot.
It’s somewhat unfair to force the players from the Olympic teams to first turn around and start a five-game road trip, but this is going to end up being the best thing for Carolina.
Beginning Tuesday with a make-up game with arch rivals the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina has a chance to make an early run. Buffalo has been awful this season to be blunt, and for a first game back there is no better way for the team to get their sea legs back. Taking on a team that can’t seem to buy a win allows the second half to start on a high note. It is important momentum for the push into the proper road trip that begins on Thursday.
It could be myopic to look upon the opening game with the Dallas Stars as a warmup for the latter two games against the Los Angeles Kings and the hotter-than-fire Anaheim Ducks. Dallas is a solid team and nobody argues that. However, L.A. and Anaheim both have goaltenders all juiced up on stellar Olympic performances in Jonathan Quick and Jonas Hiller, respectively. Carolina is averaging a very respectable 31 shots on goal per game (S/G), which is a refreshing change. Both Quick and Hiller have shown they can be solved with an onslaught, and this strategy can fare well.
It’s important for a few things to happen on the Hurricanes bench.
First and foremost, they need to be in a frame of mind that this is a playoff run and business needs to be gotten down to. The press can wait, egos checked at the door, and know this is war. While captain Eric Staal may or may not still be carrying left over whines about not making the Canadian team, that can wait. While that seems obvious and should be a given with a professional athlete, it segues into a bigger issue looming.
That of Cam Ward.
Carolina has a real chance of pulling this stunt off, and the last thing they need is Ward trying to reclaim a starting spot he has clearly lost. With Justin Peters assigned to a conditioning stint with the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate in Charlotte, this is a Ward vs. Anton Khudobin situation. The answer that is clear to everyone other than Ward is that Khudobin belongs in that net and Ward’s place is behind him. Ward hasn’t been a backup since he rode the bench behind Martin Gerber his rookie year. He’s been great until last season when the wheels came off the bus. At this point, starting Ward is a liability.
The final thing is that Jeff Skinner simply needs to return to beast mode. His epic scoring run midway through December needs to be a thing again. As Skinner finds success, so will Nathan Gerbe, Pat Dwyer and a ton of other guys who are good at taking cues. For the players on the second line and below, Skinner is their torch-bearer. Where his stats go, the others follow.
With five points out and games in hand, a playoff spot is completely doable. Figure in the NHL Trade Deadline coming up shortly, and assuming GM and human onion ring Jim Rutherford actually makes smart trades (or any, really), the postseason drought may finally break.