Hurricanes are coming together

RALEIGH, NC — The Carolina Hurricanes are the hottest team in the Eastern Conference. That isn’t an aberration, they are a darn good club.

After starting the season 0-2, the Canes are 8-2-1 and are 5-1-1 in their last seven games. The first six games of that stretch came on the road, a grueling 12-day trip that ended up serving the team well.

Not only did they pick up nine points traveling to New York, Toronto, Ottawa and Philadelphia, but the many new players grew more comfortable off the ice with the holdovers, and even more important, the chemistry on the ice grew exponentially.

Thursday night’s 3-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs was simply an extension of the trip, though the Canes were more than happy to be back in the friendly confines of PNC Arena.

“It was really good,” Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. “We missed that part of the bonding of the training camp and spending time together at the rink. The players came in and we started right away.

“At the beginning we had like seven new guys and when that happens they’re trying to get the system down but just even getting to know the players.”

The laundry list of examples begins with how Alex Semin and Eric Staal are working together on Carolina’s first line. Semin was signed to a one-year deal, and so far it looks like a brilliant move by general manager Jim Rutherford.

The Russian-born Semin just might be the team’s best set up man, thus taking some pressure off of Staal, allowing him more scoring opportunities. A 40-goal scorer in 2006 and 2009, Staal’s numbers have dropped in recent years in part because he’s had to worry about getting guys involved as much as sticking pucks into the backs of nets.

Staal already has 16 points on the season – 8 goals and 8 assists – and that production has come during the stretch. Semin has 3 goals and 7 assists.

Third-year center Jeff Skinner got off to a roaring start, scoring 5 goals in Carolina’s first five games. He has just two goals in the eight games since, but he has seven assists, yet another example of his game’s growth.

Skinner said the long road trip helped bind the team together, especially on the ice.

“I think, especially early in the year, when you get a trip like that you get on a little bit of a roll and you get consistency in your game and fine-tune things,” he said. “And I think we did a good job of that on the road trip.”

Backup goaltender Dan Ellis was excellent early in the season while regular goalie Cam Ward found his groove. Ward fully checked in on the road, yet Ellis picked up his third victory of the season Thursday. Neither of last year’s backups to Ward won so many as three games in the entire campaign.

Jussi Jokinen gushed about Ellis’ play and its impact on the team.

“I think it’s huge, huge,” he said about Ellis already having three victories. “He obviously has lots of confidence in his game right now and is playing really good and that’s what we’re going to need. You have to have goalies that can win games and that’s what’s happening right now.”

And with players such as defenseman Jay Harrison scoring three times, all in late games on the road, Jokinen getting one in the net on consecutive nights, and even Jordan Staal finally scoring a goal in front of his new home fans, the Canes are finding ways to win.

The Hurricanes are third in the Eastern Conference with 17 points and are atop the Southeast Division, leading Tampa Bay by four points.

The special teams still needs some work and Muller has a few other things in mind how he wants to continue shaping this team. But so far so good. The Hurricanes can take a breath before jumping back into the fray Monday at Montreal.

“We have a few days now to relax after a long trip and getting home and still playing this game is tough,” Jordan Staal said. “But we have a few days to take a step back and get refocused.”

And further strengthen their chemistry, too.