We interrupt our regular March Madness programming to bring teams around the NHL this important warning: Beware of Hurricanes season.
No need to panic just yet because there is still enough time to get ready for it, especially since the Carolina Hurricanes are serving plenty of notice these days that they will be a powerful force to be reckoned with when the playoffs arrive in a couple of weeks.
|Cam Ward has regained his Conn Smythe form in the second half. (US Presswire)|
Despite being less than two years removed from its first Stanley Cup championship and possessing the best overall team speed in the league -- not to mention an unassumingly effective power play -- Carolina's inconsistency made it really no better than an even-money bet just to make the playoffs coming out of the All-Star break. And the task became even more challenging when the already injury-riddled team lost its captain and leader Rod Brind'Amour to a season-ending knee injury in mid February.
At the time, the Hurricanes were already without the services of Justin Williams, their leading goal scorer last season who went down for the count just before Christmas, and since then, they have lost another one of their top producers in Ray Whitney, while 11 other players have missed at least one game. It should have been a recipe for disaster, but instead of fading away, the Hurricanes have managed to plug their holes effectively and have quietly become one of the hottest teams in the league.
"We've got some real good leadership in here, but it's a real credit to the organization I think," said veteran defenseman Bret Hedican. "Not only do they bring in skilled players, but they bring in character guys who just fit right in."
Much of the credit for that goes to GM Jim Rutherford, who has again demonstrated why he's one of the shrewdest in the business. Rutherford went to the waiver wire scrap heap in January to pick up Sergei Samsonov, who has contributed 13 goals and 33 points, and then through trades, he added modestly priced players like power play specialist Joe Corvo, speedy forward Patrick Eaves and grinder Tuomo Ruutu, all of whom have made their presences felt for the 'Canes.
So have the various players who have been part of the shuttle service between Carolina and its farm team in Albany. "We've had so many new guys come in here, that there's actually a comfort level there," said Carolina coach Peter Laviolette. "Sometimes you bring in just one or two guys and they might feel a little intimidated by their surroundings, but we've been fortunate in that regard. I think it's a good locker room right now, with lots of camaraderie and guys pulling for each other."
Carolina has gone 13-3-1 since Brind'Amour went down, including wins in eight of nine games this month, and in the process, it has pulled away from the pack in a Southeast Division that for much of the season, no one seemed worthy of winning. With a critical shootout win on the road over the red-hot Florida Panthers on Thursday, the Hurricanes all but wrapped up the division flag and the automatic top three seed that comes with it, and are moving toward the playoffs looking more like the team that won it all in 2005 than the one that missed the postseason a year ago.
"It's tough to pinpoint why, but I think the All-Star break was a good chance for us to think things over, to regroup mentally and to come back with a mission," said goaltender Cam Ward. "Guys have started to bear down and we're having fun playing the way we play."
No one more so than Ward.
After winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP when he was a rookie, Ward followed up with a disappointing season when he was officially anointed as the No. 1. The 24-year-old went through a rigorous off-season training program which helped him get off to a better start this season, and after fading for a while, he has caught fire, starting the last 14 games for Carolina, while going 11-2-1 with a .917 save percentage and a 2.31 goals-against average. The key to the team's recent success, however, has been Eric Staal, one of the NHL's elite young players who has managed to take his game to a higher lever in the absence of Brind'Amour much like Evgeni Malkin has in Pittsburgh since Sidney Crosby went down.
"I think everyone has stepped up," said Staal, who has seven goals and 17 assists since Brind'Amour was hurt. "Our team has a mindset about the way we need to play and the guys coming in, being called up or coming back from injuries know it and are all chipping in. When you have that, things usually roll your way."
So to everyone around the NHL, you've been warned.