The Carolina Hurricanes’ Storm Surge has captured the imagination of the NHL. It’s been that way for some time now, sure, but you may have noticed an increase in the attention the Hurricanes’ celebratory post-game antics have received in recent weeks. For that you can thank Don Cherry. After the Coach’s Corner commentator called the Hurricanes a “bunch of jerks,” Carolina’s marketing braintrust went ahead and co-opted the phrase, unabashedly embracing it, pressing it on t-shirts, broadcasting the newfound slogan onto the ice and turning it into what is quite possibly one of the greatest and most memorable rallying cries in NHL history.
But don’t let any of that distract you. Don’t let Duck, Duck, Goose or limbo or pantomimed home runs take away from what’s really going on in Carolina. Because while the Hurricanes continue to draw the ire of the old guard and traditionalists with their good-natured celebrations, they’ve also kept on with piling up points, and what has almost been lost amid the silliness of the Storm Surge is that Carolina’s bunch of jerks are playing the best hockey of almost any team over the past two months.
The standings tell part of the story. Waking up Thursday, the Hurricanes, owner’s of a league-worst nine-season playoff drought, find themselves sitting in a playoff position, albeit somewhat precariously. With 74 points, Carolina is holding down the third and final Metropolitan Division berth, ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins by way of the regulation and overtime wins tiebreaker and one point clear of the Columbus Blue Jackets. What’s remarkable isn’t that the Hurricanes are in a post-season position, however. It’s the distance they’ve climbed in order to reach such a spot in the standings.
After action ended on Dec. 31, a night when the Hurricanes closed out 2018 with a 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina entered the new year only three points outside the Eastern Conference basement and nine points back of a wild-card spot. They were staring up, way up, at the Penguins and Blue Jackets teams which they’ve since passed, too. Pittsburgh held an 11-point advantage on Carolina, while Columbus was 12 points ahead. But that victory over the Flyers sparked a run for the Hurricanes, and since Jan. 1, few teams have been able to keep pace.
Entering the new year, Carolina rattled off another four consecutive victories to stretch the win streak to five, and in the two months since, only the St. Louis Blues have compiled more victories than the Hurricanes’ 18 wins. The result is a Carolina club that has collected 37 points since Jan. 1, tied for the third most of any team in the NHL since the turn of the calendar, only a single point back of the Tampa Bay Lightning and three behind the aforementioned Blues.
It’s not just that the Hurricanes are winning games, though. It’s how they’re doing so. Since the beginning of the new year, Carolina, once considered one of the most offensively inconsistent and at times inept organizations in the league, has boasted one of the best attacks in the NHL.
The Hurricanes’ 93 goals are the second-most of any club since the start of January, and the contributions have come from all throughout the lineup with Carolina’s dynamic duo of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen leading the way. Combined, the Hurricanes’ one-two punch has accounted for 20 goals and 61 points over the past two months, but others — including Justin Williams, Micheal Ferland, Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin — have played their parts to perfection. That’s not to mention that mid-season acquisition Nino Niederreiter has flourished since his move to Carolina. Though he’s missed some time due to injury, he has nine goals and 15 points in his 17 games as a Hurricane. Give GM Don Waddell full credit for that swap.
It’s not run-and-gun winning the Hurricanes games, though. Rather, it’s a commitment at both ends of the ice. Carolina’s goal differential since New Year’s Day? An outstanding plus-31. Only the Lightning (plus-30) and Blues (plus-32) are in the same company. And while the 93 goals for helps lay the foundation, the Hurricanes have managed to tilt the scoreboard as often as they have thanks to a mere 62 goals against over the past two months. Only six teams have allowed fewer.
What helps is that the Hurricanes have a rock-solid top four on the back end and that the foundation of puck possession hockey laid by former coach Bill Peters, now bench boss with the Calgary Flames, has been built upon by rookie coach Rod Brind’Amour. The Hurricanes rank first on the season in 5-on-5 Corsi percentage (55.2) and shots percentage (55.2), while placing second in scoring chance percentage (54.6) and fourth in high-danger chance percentage (54.8). They’ve maintained similar percentages over the past two months, too, as one might imagine, and Carolina has maintained its standing as one of the most dogged possession clubs in the NHL.
As Hurricanes fans would be quick to tell you, though, and as Peters would surely tell you about his time in Carolina if he was being open and honest, dominating the puck means little without goaltending, and that’s quite possibly the one way in which the Hurricanes’ season has been most surprising. Excepted was offensive growth from Aho and Teravainen and the history of strong underlying numbers portended further success in those same categories this season. What few would have guessed, however, is that the answer in goal would have been some combination of Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek.
Though the pair’s full-season totals hardly fall into league-best territory, the Hurricanes keepers have combined for a .929 SP at 5-on-5 over the past two months and a .912 SP at all strengths. Respectively, those marks are eighth and 10th in the NHL since the beginning of the calendar year. The individual numbers of the two netminders are worth noting, too. Mrazek’s .906 SP at all strengths since Jan. 1 has made him a serviceable goaltender, though slightly below average, statistically, while McElhinney has more than carried his weight. His .922 SP over the past two months is the 11th-best mark among netminders with at least 10 games played. The goaltending of which Carolina has long been in need? They’re finally getting it and from two unexpected sources.
All told, what this looks to be is a group that is heading in the right direction at the right time with all the pieces snapping into perfectly into place, and with the way they’ve played over the past two months, the Hurricanes look like a team that is dying to snap the post-season drought before it reaches a decade. And if this does end up being the year, we can’t wait to see what’s in store for the playoff-clinching Storm Surge.