RALEIGH Following Thursday’s 2-1 overtime loss in Boston, the Carolina Hurricanes stand 9-9-5 after the first 23 games of their 82-game season. While not currently in a playoff spot, Carolina’s play has offered renewed hope that it could snap its seven-season postseason drought.Just past the quarter pole of the NHL season, here are North State Journal’s bests and worsts from the first seven weeks of the season.MVP: Jeff Skinner, left wingSkinner has embraced his leadership role in 2016-17, providing a spark when needed (see his two second-period breakaways against Florida Nov. 27) while continuing to be front and center after games with the media regardless of result. In his 22 games, Skinner leads the team in goals (nine), assists (11) and points (20), and his 0.91 points per game ranks tied for 20th in the league.Best newcomer: Sebastian Aho, right wingThe rookie has competition for this: Lee Stempniak had a great start to the season, while Teuvo Teravainen and Viktor Stalberg are both settling in and contributing for the Hurricanes. But outside of Aho’s production (11 points in 23 games), he has already earned key roles in major moments. When Aho was out on the ice in the finals seconds in the home opener, defending a one-goal lead after the Rangers pulled their goalie in an eventual win, Peters succinctly summed up what it meant for the 19-year-old to be out on the ice: “It says I trust him, that’s what it says.”Biggest surprise: Matt Tennyson, defenseThe Hurricanes struggled to stabilize their defense early in the season, but Tennyson’s recall from Charlotte and insertion into the lineup Nov. 12 a 5-1 win over Washington seemingly brought everything into focus. Tennyson struggled and was overshadowed in training camp, but has been the No. 6 defender Carolina needed to pair with Noah Hanifin and solidify the defense and the team.Biggest disappointment: Phil Di Giuseppe, left wingLast season Di Giuseppe burst on the scene and had the look of a perfect third-line forward. Physical with the ability to score, he finished with 17 points in 41 games in his first taste in 2015-16. But Di Giuseppe is still looking for his first point this season, playing 11 games before being reassigned to AHL Charlotte. Now back with Carolina for two games and still looking for his first point he needs to rediscover his scoring touch.Best comeback: Cam Ward, goalieBoth Ward and Eddie Lack struggled to start the season again but Ward’s November was one to remember. His .935 save percentage and 1.74 goals-against average in 13 appearances in November ranks among the best months of his career. He opened December with 59-plus minutes of shutout hockey Thursday before Boston, with their goalie pulled, scored to tie it with 32 seconds left and then scored on Ward twice in the shootout to knock off the Hurricanes.Best moment: Jeff Skinner gets a hat trick almostIn the home opener, Skinner had two goals already when, with just a second left in the second period, he blasted a slap shot past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist to seemingly complete the hat trick. And since it was free hat night at PNC Arena, caps rained down en masse. The goal turned out to be the game-winner, giving Carolina its first win in a home opener since 2008. During the second intermission, the goal was credited to Bryan Bickell, whose sweater was brushed by the shot on the way through. “It’s been a while since I’ve scored a goal,” Bickell said with a smile after the win.Worst moment: Brian Bickell diagnosed with multiple sclerosisThe Hurricanes newcomer was trying to restart his career after he and his big contract fell out of favor in cap-strapped Chicago. On Nov. 11, the team announced Bickell had found the reason he had “been struggling to understand what was going on with my body.” His diagnosis with MS clearly shook up the team and Peters, who had coached Bickell in Chicago’s farm system. But his presence around the team while he gets treatment and pushes for a return to the ice has seemingly been a rallying point for Carolina.Key to success: Penalty killCarolina’s penalty kill has ranked near the top of the league all season and was No. 1 at 90.3 percent following its OT loss Thursday. Peters and staff have employed several forwards shorthanded seven were averaging at least 46 seconds of kill time after Thursday’s game and the top four defenseman (Justin Faulk, Ron Hainsey, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin) have all been key to the team’s success when down a man.Reason for concern: OvertimeLike seasons past, the Hurricanes continue to struggle in overtime and the shootout. Carolina is 0-3 in overtime and 1-2 in the shootout, leaving five points on the board. The team was 2-5 after regulation last year, missing out on five points and winding up seven out of a playoff spot.Expansion draft watch: Eddie LackThe Vegas Golden Knights will enter the NHL next season, plucking one player from each team via the expansion draft. There are countless rules on who is eligible to be selected by the Golden Knights and the number of players each team can protect, but for now Lack is the odds-on favorite to be Vegas-bound. His time in Carolina hasn’t worked out, and he has just one year remaining on his deal after this season. He’s a plus in the locker room and would be a good ambassador for the new team while earning himself a fresh start.
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