When we woke up on December 10 as a fanbase, it's safe to say we were less than optimistic about the current state of our team. This was the morning after the Hurricanes lost a tough game 4-3 in Vancouver on a soft goal to mark the team's fourth straight loss, with two games left on their road trip. The Canes were 14-12-1 at that point, outside of a playoff spot, and not living up to the title of a contender as given to them during the preseason.
Over the last month and a half, things have changed dramatically. The Hurricanes are 14-3-4 since their loss in Vancouver and 11-2-1 since returning from Christmas. Entering the All-Star Break, they're two points behind the New York Rangers for the division lead with a game in hand. They're five points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers for second place with two games in hand and nine points clear of the New York Islanders behind them.
A lot has gone into their resurgence, but most of the credit belongs to their defensive crackdown and their extraordinary special teams. Since December 10, the Canes are the proud owners of the best power play (37.7%) and penalty kill (90.9%) in the league, with their special teams often playing a deciding factor in games. They're also allowing less than 2.50 goals per game over that stretch, ranking in the Top 5.
Pyotr Kochetkov has stepped up to take over the starting role. He posted a .924 save percentage and 2.06 GAA in 11 starts before going down with an injury on January 11. Antti Raanta has done a good job of helping the team win games in Kochetkov's absence, and waiver acquisition Spencer Martin made a critical spot start in Boston before the break.
The offense shouldn't get lost in the shuffle. Few forwards in the league have been more prolific over the last month and a half than Sebastian Aho. He's fifth in points per game (1.52, 32 in 21) since December 10, while Andrei Svechnikov is sixth (1.46, 19 in 13) despite missing some time. Seth Jarvis is well on his way to breaking career highs in most major categories, while Jack Drury has already done so as he continues to prove his value to this team.
When the Hurricanes return from the All-Star Break, they won't get much of a reprieve. Their first three games, all at home, are against Vancouver, Colorado, and New Jersey. Then, they head west for three against Dallas, Arizona, and Vegas. Those are six tough opponents in consecutive weeks. However, the hope is that they'll be at their healthiest once they return. Andrei Svechnikov, who missed the last four games before the break, should be good to go, while Pyotr Kochetkov was healthy enough to back up the win over Arizona.
Over the final 34 games, the Canes have an even 17-17 split in home and road games. For the entirety of February, it's three at home, followed by three on the road through the end of the month. Nine of their next 18 games come against the Top 9 in points percentage at the break, including their final meeting of the season against the Rangers and two with the Panthers. They also will conclude their season series with the Devils during that stretch.
While ten of the final 16 games are on the road, including the last four of the season, most of their games are against teams outside of a postseason spot at the break. They'll play Toronto and Boston twice each, but they also have two meetings with Columbus and a trip to Chicago in their final five games. A long road trip to end the season isn't ideal, but their final opponents aren't bad considering the circumstances.
As far as the division is concerned, the Hurricanes have already finished over half of their 26 games against division opponents, and they've performed well thus far. At 9-3-3, the Canes have the best points percentage against the Metropolitan Division among the eight teams. The Blue Jackets are the only opponent they have to face three times, while they still have to play the Capitals and Devils twice.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying the last 21 games have put the team in a position that few felt they'd be in after losing four straight in Western Canada. With the team clicking about as well as it has all season, there is plenty of reason to feel good about how the rest of the season will transpire. There's also the trade deadline in a little over a month, so who knows what this team could look like then? The race for the postseason is going to be an exciting one. If this team continues to play like they have been lately, we could be in for a fun ride.