October is the kind of month that represents the changing of the seasons. Fall is kicking into high gear, and to sports fans there is the proverbial handoff from baseball season to hockey and basketball season. For Carolina Hurricanes fans however, October has a completely different meaning. While other teams are gearing up for the new season, Canes fans are dreading the October curse. For the opening two weeks of the season, the NC State Fair rolls into town, and the Canes roll out. People make arguments every year about how disastrous the annual season opening road trip is for the team, or that its actually a good time for the boys to bond. Either way the trip does not help the win-loss column. Its often said that you do not win a championship in October, but you can definitely lose them. The Canes know this all too well, not picking up points in the early part of the season and playing from behind all year.
This off season the Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis added talented pieces up front in hopes of adding to the underperforming offense from years past. This team gained a lot of recognition last season for their shot suppression and puck possession metrics. The very young defensive core that featured three rookies was a point of strength the team hoped to ride into this season. Coming into 2016-17 there would be three big questions for this young rebuilding team. Would the offensive additions be enough to get them over the hump, would the young defensive core hold their steady upward trend, and would the goaltending be a weak point yet again?
Through the first six games we have some answers. After blowing a three goal lead to lose in overtime twice against Winnipeg and Vancouver, the Hurricanes then fell a goal short of making their own three goal come back against Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers. Waiting till their fourth game of the season to pick up win number one, the Canes jumped out to another three goal lead against Calgary. This time they held them off to win 4-2. Coming back to the east coast to play the Flyers, another blown two goal lead left the Canes in the loss column. To finish up the road trip, the Canes played from behind all night to a 4-2 loss against the Redwings in their last regular season game in Joe Louis Arena.
There is a common theme playing out here, and its one you would expect to happen to a team this young. In every game so far we have seen the Canes either jump out to an early lead and then give it up, or give up an early lead, only to mount a comeback of their own. It is a sign of a team that is still learning to play consistent hockey for three periods every night. In the teams eyes, this is just the learning curve of young players, and figuring out what it takes to have a 60 minute effort. But for the fans, this can be a huge roller coaster of emotions and at the end of the night can be very gut wrenching.
Canes head coach Bill Peters has a very effective system, and when this team learns to play it we will see a very dangerous group of players. Looking back over the past six games, there are some positives and some negatives to be taken away. One thing that should have every Canes fan excited, is the early success of the Skinner-Rask-Stempniak line. So far they have six, seven, and six points respectively and Victor Rask has been off to an extremely hot start.
Rask, who is coming off of a 21 goal season, has already racked up 4 goals and 3 assists. The organization and fans alike were hoping he would make the jump from being a solid two-way centerman, to an elite scorer, and so far this season he has done just that. Wedged in between Jeff Skinner and Lee Stempniak, we are seeing a very dynamic line with lots of immediate chemistry.
The question of whether the defense can keep a steady upward trend, has yet to yield any real answers. The team has suffered several blown leads, and a GAA of 4 so far. While part of this is on the defense, the small sample size makes it hard to tell yet whether it is the problems with the defense, uninspiring goaltending, or just bad luck. The goaltending tandem was a big question mark coming into the season. Between Eddie Lack and Cam Ward, a lot of people were wondering if either would be able to take the reigns or if it would be much more of what we saw last year. So far we haven’t seen the kind of goaltending that can carry a team to the post season.
The Canes finished the road trip with four points from the six games. While this is better than some recent seasons, they have a hard task ahead of them to turn this ship around. Going forward, there are some exciting story lines to watch for, but these large swings in momentum and effort are something the team will have to deal with. The influx of scoring so far this year has been great, but it is yet to be seen if the lack (no pun intended) of dominating goaltending performances will drag this team down.