Friday, November 11, 2005

Body Checks: Hurricane Warning

Before the season began, not many prognosticators had the Carolina Hurricanes taking the 'New NHL' by storm. For the record, I too thought the Hurricanes would finish near the bottom of the East. But as most would point out, did anyone have the Rangers winning 10 of their first 18 games, picking up points in 13 of them either?

That's the kind of season its been. Where unforeseen pleasant surprises like Carolina and New York are out of the gate quickly.

The Hurricanes took a franchise best eight-game winning streak into Florida Friday night. The previous record was seven originally established by Hartford from March 16-29, 1985. Remarkably, they have picked up at least a point in 11 straight games (10-0-1) with their last regulation defeat a 3-2 loss to the Islanders on October 8. Their 11-2-1 mark for 23 points puts them at the top of the Southeast and tied them with the Rangers for third most points in the conference behind Montreal and Ottawa. It also is the best ever start for the Whaler/Cane franchise. They're a perfect 7-0-0 at the RBC Center this season.

So, why are the Canes so improved? Look at the NHL scoring leaders and you'll see second-year center Eric Staal near the top of the list with 27 points (11-16-27). A marked improvement for the former 2003 second overall pick who finished with 31 points his rookie year in '03-04. In just 14 games in '05-06, Staal has already matched his goal output (11). His role is much different as he now centers the top line and is relied on for offense. So far, he's excelling.

At the 2005 Draft, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford traded Jeff O'Neill to Toronto in exchange for a future conditional 2006 pick. It was an attempt to change the look of his club. One summer earlier, Rutherford acquired goalie Martin Gerber from Anaheim for prospect Tomas Malec and a third round pick. That move has turned out great so far. In splitting time with rookie netminder Cam Ward, Gerber is 6-1-0 with a 2.26 GAA, .928 save percentage and one shutout. Ward has won five of his first eight starts.

Remaining from the '02 Hurricanes which lost to Detroit in the Cup final are Rod Brind'Amour, Erik Cole, Josef Vasicek, Bret Hedican, Glen Wesley, Aaron Ward and Niclas Wallin. Along with additions such as Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen, Oleg Tverdovsky and Frantisek Kaberle, Carolina's roster has meshed.

A member of the Cup champion Lightning, Stillman is second on the team with 18 points while the homegrown Cole is third with 15. Brind'Amour is playing some of his best hockey. He ranks second in goals (8), fourth in points (14) and takes most of the important draws. Whitney and Cullen have contributed well to the cause. On the blueline, Tverdovsky has provided a lift with eight points and a plus-seven rating. He also won a Cup with the '03 Devils. Kaberle leads their D with nine points. Hedican and Wesley have been steady and ex-Flame Mike Commodore has provided some beef.

Maybe what was overlooked with Carolina is that Rutherford kept some of his roster intact and added savvy vets who would fit in well to coach Peter Laviolette's system. The former Islander coach led the Isles to their first two playoff appearances ('02, '03) since '94. He was hired by the Hurricanes on December 18, 2003 and led them to a 20-22-6-4 finish in '03-04. So far, Laviolette has done a solid job behind the bench, putting the focus back on winning.

From the look of things, the Hurricanes plan on sticking around a while.


Checking In:

-Sidney Crosby is everything advertised. But giving him top October rookie over more worthy freshmen Jason LaBarbera, Henrik Lundqvist and Alexander Ovechkin reeks of league PR in New York. Something we'd expect from the NBA. Not the NHL.

-Kudos to the Blues for planning to honor Al MacInnis by retiring his number 2 next April 9th. Is Lou Lamoriello listening when it comes to a certain player who wore number 4?

-It took an injury to Sebastien Caron for Pittsburgh to finally recall former '03 top pick Marc-Andre Fleury. This from a team that signed Jocelyn Thibault in the offseason.

-If the Islanders continue struggling, do you think GM Mike Milbury wishes he had kept Laviolette?

-Simon Gagne is off to a great start playing with Foppa but there's no better line than Ottawa's terrific trio of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson.

-Before the season many observers thought the Red Wings were done. Care to change your opinion?

-So when does John Tortorella shake up his defending Cup champion team?

-When will Marc Crawford realize that Alex Auld is a better option in net than Dan Cloutier?

-Scott Niedermayer has 10 points. Sean Brown has 9. Which one is getting paid to play like a superstar?

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