On the Panthers’ last day of the regular season, they had one of the biggest games in their existence in front of them. Win the game against the hot Carolina Hurricanes, and win the division. Lose, and the division would be lost in a choking fashion and seeding would be horrible for the playoffs. The game was easily a sellout, and many eyes were on the two teams.
Then, right before the game started, the Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller did something interesting. Instead of putting the best possible team on the ice, he sat his starting goaltender Cam Ward. In his stead was Brian Boucher: a solid backup but a marked departure from Cam. The Panthers took advantage and easily won, 4-1.
I thought about that decision for a while. Ward wasn’t injured; in fact he was smoking hot coming into the matchup. Well then I thought, maybe Kirk Muller wants us to win the division. He was on the ’96 Panthers team, and he knows how much a division title would mean to the franchise’s health. Or maybe he just wanted to stick it to the Caps a little bit. Whatever the case, regardless of my speculation, Muller’s little change-up was a big help to our playoff chances.
But just as recently that we remember the team that might’ve laid down in front of the Panthers, the Hurricanes could quite possibly be a team that will rise above us in the standings. Their offseason moves have put them in the discussion to win the conference for sure. Coming in to Raleigh are Jordan Staal and Alex Semin, and simultaneously Jeff Skinner has just been locked up to a six-year extension. At least on paper, this team looks like the best in the division.
From at least one position, there is a marked advantage. Goaltender Cam Ward has been the division’s best goalie by most standards, and seems to be a consistent all-star almost every year. Saves like this are evidence of his talent (even though he might have gotten lucky on that one). Goaltending doesn’t project to be a problem in Carolina this year, or for many years.
On offense, there also shouldn’t be much of an issue. The addition of Semin and Jordan Staal should certainly inflate goal totals from the very middle-of-the-pack 2.58 goals per game Carolina scored last year. Add those talents to current stalwarts Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu, and Jeff Skinner, and the offense could be very explosive to say the least. The duo of brothers Eric and Jordan could be fascinating to watch, like the Sedins.
Yes, the goaltending and offense should be fine next year, but the concern comes from the blue line. Carolina was 25th last year in goals allowed per game, at 2.89. Over the offseason, there was no real upgrade at defense to help that number. The only man brought in was Marc-Andre Gragnani from Vancouver, but he isn’t guarenteed to even make the NHL roster, as he signed a two-way contract in July. Right now the core is the same, with Joe Corvo, Joni Pitkanen, and Tim Gleason. Not exactly a murderers’ row, but it is solid. Their only job is to keep action low on the defensive side of the puck and let the top two lines go to work on offense. But every team in the Eastern Conference is looking hard at Carolina now, and they know the Hurricanes are still vulnerable here.
However, the team as a whole is very impressive. For most years, the Hurricanes seem to be on the brink of breaking into a playoff run before falling slightly flat, leaving themselves near the bottom of the conference playoff standings. But right now, Carolina has to be considered the top team in the Southeast Division, and they could do some serious damage if they can grab one of those top three playoff slots. And if Ward can get hot at the right time, there is no telling how far the Hurricanes could advance.
But games are not played on paper, of course. The Hurricanes will need to overcome every other team in the division, who have all made improvements of their own. We’ll see who is the best at the end of the year.
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