At seasons midway point, Hurricanes still in playoff mix

A look at the best and worst of the first half of the 2016-17 campaign

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
Hurricanes center Derek Ryan celebrates Carolina left wing Jeff Skinner's goal in the second period of Carolina's 5-3 win overColumbus on Jan. 10 at PNC Arena.

RALEIGH — Back in early December, we looked at the first quarter of the Carolina Hurricanes’ season and evaluated some of the best and worst moments, most impactful players and some disappointments.With their 5-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday, the Hurricanes officially closed out the first half of the 2016-17 campaign with a 19-15-7 record and were just three points behind — with two games in hand — the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card playoff spot.How have things changed since we last evaluated the Hurricanes 23 games in, just past the quarter pole? Carolina went 9-9-5 to start the season (exactly one point earned in the standings per game), but have gone 10-6-2 since (1.22 points per game). The latter projects to a 100-point pace, the type of play that will be needed to earn a spot in the competitive Eastern Conference.Here’s a look at some individual accolades and specific moments we highlighted at the quarter pole, and how things have changed since.MVP then: Jeff SkinnerMVP now: Jaccob SlavinSkinner’s production has dropped off some from the first evaluation, going from 0.91 points per game in his first 22 outings (he missed one game due to injury) to 0.67 points per game since. That opens the door for Slavin, who has quietly become Carolina’s lockdown defenseman this season. Having an almost-as-good-as-him partner in Brett Pesce helps, but Slavin has been a workhorse. He hasn’t logged less than 22 minutes since late November and has 10 points (all assists) in the past 18 games. To show how under-the-radar Slavin is, fellow defender Justin Faulk got the nod as Carolina’s representative at the upcoming NHL All-Star game — a choice any astute observer of the Hurricanes knows misses the mark.Best newcomer then and now: Sebastian AhoCarolina’s rookie continues to improve with each passing game. After 23 games, Aho had 11 points. Since? He has 12 points in 18 games, including three multi-point games and seven of his 10 goals.Biggest surprise then: Matt TennysonBiggest surprise now: Derek RyanTennyson’s hold on the No. 6 defenseman job has been shaky of late, with Ryan Murphy and Klas Dahlbeck jockeying for the spot but unable to take it away. Since the 23-game mark, Ryan — a mid-November call-up — has been masterful. In the last 18 games, the 30-year-old Ryan has nine goals and seven assists, proving his 2014-15 MVP season in the Swedish Hockey League was no fluke.Biggest disappointment then: Phil Di GiuseppeBiggest disappointment now: Eddie LackDi Giuseppe hasn’t regained the form that made him so promising last season — he was reassigned to AHL Charlotte Dec. 12 and hasn’t been back since. Despite that, he’s been surpassed by the strange, injury-filled campaign of Lack. Lack has twice been sidelined by concussions, and when he has played — just four times, really — his goals-against average has hovered near four. Lack hasn’t started since Nov. 6 and Carolina has had to lean heavily on Cam Ward because of it.Best moment then: Jeff Skinner gets a hat trick — almostBest moment now: Carolina wins 8-6 thrillerIt was a game that ages coaches years, if not decades. On Dec. 13 in Raleigh, Carolina and Vancouver engaged in perhaps the wildest game of the NHL season, combining to play all four goalies, score 14 goals, and sprout countless behind-the-bench gray hairs. The Hurricanes scored six times in the third period — after the Canucks had four of their own in the second — to erase a three-goal deficit and win 8-6.Worst moment then and now: Bryan Bickell diagnosed with multiple sclerosisThe team announced Nov. 11 Bickell had an answer for why he wasn’t feeling like himself: he had M.S. Bickell has been around the team, even taking the ice for a couple practices of late in his quest to return to action.Best comeback then and now: Cam WardWard remains the best story of Carolina’s 2016-17 season. Are his underlying advanced stats fantastic? Most would tell you no. But Ward has done something this year that’s been lacking in recent seasons: make big saves when needed. Even when Ward has struggled, he’s often found a way to fight through it: see Tuesday’s win over Columbus, when all three of the goals he allowed were iffy, but his stellar toe save on Scott Hartnell preserved a one-goal, third-period lead and contributed to Carolina beating another high-powered foe.Key to success then and now: Penalty killCarolina still has the NHL’s top penalty kill, checking in at 88.5 percent. Most impressive is the number of players who have become part of the PK, including early season call-ups Ryan and Brock McGinn. Viktor Stalberg’s signing this offseason has been key, and both Slavin and Pesce have become stalwarts on the unit.Reason for concern then: OvertimeReason for concern now: Goaltending depthCarolina has done a better job of closing out games, leading to fewer overtimes, and has won four of six games that went beyond regulation since Dec. 3. The most pressing concern now is the workload on Ward, who has played 35 of the first 41 games. That 70-game pace would be the most he’s had since 2010-11 (74 games, 73 starts).Expansion draft watch then: Eddie LackExpansion draft watch now: The defenseLack’s injuries and struggles make it hard to believe Las Vegas would choose him to build around this summer, and Carolina now has a more pressing matter: which defender to expose. With Murphy not claiming a spot in the lineup, the chance of him making the 2016-17 40-game threshold (10 this season) or two-season 70-game mark (45 this year and last) for eligibility seems unlikely. That means Carolina needs to extend a defenseman who will fill the requirement (Ron Hainsey, Dahlbeck or Tennyson) or risk Faulk being up for grabs. GM Ron Francis would never let the latter happen, but he has to do something.