Carolina Hurricanes center Joakim Nordstrom celebrates teammate John-Michael Liles's goal against the Vancouver Canucks during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian
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Red, white and blue line: An infusion of American defensemen has sparked the Carolina Hurricanes into playoff contention.

January 07, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Call it the all-American defense for the Carolina Hurricanes.

Since they reconstituted their D with six United States-born skaters, the Hurricanes have been a tougher team to beat. They've climbed out of last place in the Metropolitan Division and are hoping to push for their first playoff berth since 2009.

With all that red, white and blue on the blue line, Carolina has earned points in three of four games and five of seven heading into its home game against Columbus on Friday night.

''It's kind of a coincidence,'' said Brett Pesce of Tarrytown, New York. ''But at the same time, it shows how much American hockey is growing.''

They cover a wide range of ages—from 35-year-old veteran John-Michael Liles to 18-year-old rookie Noah Hanifin —and sizes: three of them are 6' 3", while Liles is just 5' 10".

But they all have two things in common: They were born in the U.S. and played college hockey before jumping to the pros.

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Three of them—Pesce (New Hampshire), Hanifin (Boston College) and Jaccob Slavin (Colorado College)—all were in college at this time last year. Hanifin was the team's first-round draft pick in June and made the team out of training camp, while Pesce and Slavin combined to play just 21 games for the Hurricanes' AHL affiliate in Charlotte.

''The college game, there's very good hockey there. ... We all take pride in that,'' said Slavin, a Denver native. ''We're all American-born, and we all want to represent our country the best way we can.''

Justin Faulk played at Minnesota-Duluth, Ron Hainsey went to UMass-Lowell and Liles skated at Michigan State. They've all done their part to make the Hurricanes a stronger team.

In its first 18 games, Carolina earned just 14 points—at that time tied for the fewest in the Eastern Conference, and just one point ahead of Edmonton for fewest in the league—and shared last place in the Metropolitan Division on Nov. 19.

The Hurricanes called up Slavin to make his NHL debut the next day and made him the sixth U.S.-born defenseman on the team. Coincidentally or not, from that day forward they've played much better, posting a 10-8-5 record while earning 25 points in 23 games to jump into a tie for 12th place in the Eastern Conference, five points back of eighth place.

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The six have been able to stay healthy and develop continuity on the ice. Five of them have played in every game during that span; Slavin was sent back to the minors for only one game—a 5–1 loss to New Jersey on Dec. 3.

They've done a good job of keeping some pressure off goalies Cam Ward and Eddie Lack. No team allows fewer shots than Carolina, which gives up just 26 per game.

''We're all just working really well together because we all get along together,'' Slavin said. ''That builds chemistry on the ice as well, and we have a lot of talent on the back end. If you look top to bottom, there's a big age difference there but there's also a lot of talent there.''

They hope to finally push Carolina back into the postseason after six years of missing the playoffs, the longest active drought among teams in the Eastern Conference.

But for now, the bottom line is that they're playing well—no matter where they're from.

''They're all talented, they all have some unique skill sets to them, but the younger guys are all bigger and can skate,'' second-year coach Bill Peters said. ''It's a mobile group, and they're hanging onto pucks and making plays.''

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Follow Joedy McCreary at http://twitter.com/joedyap. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/joedy-mccreary

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