Slump-free Hurricanes ‘feel different’ this season

Carolina has been able to avoid losing streaks and controls its destiny in pursuit of an end to a nine-year playoff drought

Captain Justin Williams and the Hurricanes have avoided losing streaks during their push to reach the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. (Mark Humphrey / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — As a coach who has forthrightly preached an otherwise cliche one-game-at-a-time mantra, Rod Brind’Amour was unsurprisingly surprised to learn his team hadn’t lost consecutive games in regulation in nearly two months.

“Really? I didn’t realize that,” Brind’Amour said following Saturday’s 4-2 home win over the Buffalo Sabres.

The win, a day after a 3-0 loss in Columbus, helped Carolina avoid going two games without a point in the crowded-as-Brind’Amour’s-workout-schedule Eastern Conference playoff race.

The last time the Hurricanes dropped two straight in regulation was way back in mid-January, when the team followed a 6-2 loss at the Rangers with a 4-1 home defeat to Ottawa three nights later.

“I think it’s just the sign of a good team,” said goalie Curtis McElhinney, who was in the Carolina net for Saturday’s win and the loss in New York more than two months ago.

Not only has Carolina been able to bank points in the standings frequently, but other than the overtime loss in Boston on March 5 and the following 8-1 drubbing from Winnipeg at PNC Arena on March 8, Carolina hasn’t gone two games without a win since those two defeats back in January.

“It’s super important because where we’re at,” Brind’Amour said of avoiding losing streaks. “You just can’t afford any losses. The race is so tight and no one’s losing around us. … It’s never been easy, it’s not going to be easy. We gotta keep forging ahead and gotta win.”

In the past 24 games since losing two straight — not counting Tuesday’s home game against Pittsburgh, which was after press time — the Hurricanes are 17-5-2 (36 points; 1.5 per game).

The Hurricanes have avoided back-to-back losses for long stretches before. As recently as early last season, the Hurricanes dropped consecutive games at Dallas and at home against Tampa Bay then went 33 games without losing two straight in regulation. The difference? The team lost four overtime games and three more in shootouts during that stretch and had two four-game streaks without a win, going just 16-10-7 (39 points; 1.18 points).

Such is the difference between a team that is right in the middle of a playoff race and another that was scrambling to even be considered in the hunt.

“We’re winning games where last year we wouldn’t have,” captain Justin Williams said earlier this month. “And I can count more of them on my hand that I felt we would’ve lost last year, and this year we came out with wins.

“At this point in time last year, we were kind of pretending that we were making a playoff run. Obviously, we were trying as best we could. It obviously feels a little different, and I think it looks a little different also.”

Jordan Staal spent his first six seasons with the Hurricanes more or less pretending the team was in contention this time of year. Staal often had the look of a defeated man last year when it became clear the team would miss the postseason again — including a familiar and frequent postgame far-off stare that was reminiscent of brother Eric Staal during the tail end of his final six-plus years in Raleigh.

Now almost four weeks removed from a concussion that cost him nearly half a season, Staal has added another dimension to the team that caught fire while he recovered — one that has helped the Hurricanes avoid the multigame slides that could damage its playoff chances.

“That’s what good teams do is when you have a tough one, you want to rebound and bounce back and come back with a good effort and build on that again,” Staal said following Saturday’s win over Buffalo in which he scored to earn his 500th NHL point. “We’ve continued to do that.

“Obviously, I watched for the first bit there, but since I’ve been back, you can tell the leadership and the character in the room and everyone believing in each other. Coming back for a bounce-back game has been big and a big part of our push.”

That leadership — which starts with the first-year coach and trickles down to Williams and the rest of the team — has also been a noticeable difference from years past.

“It comes from everyone,” Staal, an alternate captain this season, said. “There’s no question there’s some key leaders, but everyone in the room is able to lead and is able to contribute.

“And, obviously, we’ve got a young team, so there’s going to be a lot of young leaders, as well. And you can tell. I’m sure you can pick a few that you know of that have led this team throughout this whole year. And it’s been fun to be a part of.”