Are the Hurricanes strong enough to make the playoffs?

BY foxsports • February 2, 2016

Right before the Carolina Hurricanes were released for their All-Star break, they had one final assignment before their official dismissal.

The Hurricanes would have to take on the Chicago Blackhawks, the team with the second-most points in the NHL.

On paper, it was tough. But Carolina made it look simple, dicing the Blackhawks for five goals in the first two periods before coasting to a 5-0 win.

"We feel like we can compete with anybody, which we've shown here," captain Eric Staal said following the game.

He's right. His team can compete with anybody.

The Hurricanes most recent win was their 23rd of the season. That places Carolina just a single point out of the second Wild Card spot with 31 games to go.

Prior to the beginning of the season, to think the Hurricanes would be right in the heart of the playoff race would be downright asinine. After all, the Hurricanes finished with the fifth-lowest points in the NHL just the season prior, placing themselves outside of playoff contention for the seventh-straight season. And new arrivals Kris Versteeg, Eddie Lack and James Wisniewski weren't supposed to make that much of a difference. And then Wisniewski promptly went down with an ACL tear 47 seconds into his start of the season, and the defense was supposed to take a bit of a blow. Brand new freshman defenseman Noah Hanifin was placed into the NHL a bit sooner than expected.

Anything else?

Oh, just the seemingly constant discussion on where Staal was going to be traded at the deadline. And then you can insert the red-hot rumors of Jeff Skinner being on his way out.

The point is, it wasn't crazy to believe the Hurricanes would be nowhere even remotely close to where they are today. But those same naysayers were wrong, and if the Hurricanes continue to play as well as they have been over the course of the remainder of the season, they will make the playoffs. And that's because they have one of the best defenses in the NHL, with an adequate enough offense and goaltending to lead them to victories.

Justin Faulk (left) and Noah Hanifin help fuel one of the best blue lines in the NHL.

That's no exaggeration. The Hurricanes actually do have one of the better defenses in the entire NHL. If we take a look at some more in-depth statistics, we can see that the Hurricanes consistently rank among the top 10 in several defensive categories.

Let's take a look at Carolina's shots on goal against, Corsi-against (Corsi-against measures an opponents total shots, whether they hit the net, get blocked or miss the net entirely), scoring chances against and high-danger scoring chances against. All of these statistics will be per 60 minutes of even strength 5-v-5 play. And, for the sake of balancing out game situations across the NHL, we'll take a look at these numbers in close game situations (meaning the teams are within one goal of each other or tied in the first two periods, or for any amount of time after two periods. It's a better indicator of a team's overall play considering the game is close and not a blowout, where numbers tend to get skewed). We'll also show the total percentage of the Hurricanes' shifts start in the offensive zone. This information is provided by War On Ice.

Carolina Hurricanes' Defensive Ranks (Even-Strength 5-v-5, Close Situations)

Category Value NHL Rank
Shots on Goal Against Per 60 25.1 1st
Corsi-Against Per 60 48.9 3rd
Scoring Chances Against Per 60 24.2 6th
High-Danger Scoring Chances Against Per 60 10.3 9th
Offensive Zone Start Percentage 54.4 2nd

At even strength, 5-v-5 play in close-game situations, no team gives up fewer shots on goal than the Hurricanes. They also do an excellent job at minimizing their opponents' total shot attempts. And most of those attempts don't account for scoring chances.

And the same can be said for the Hurricanes' penalty kill, which ranks 10th in the NHL at 82.5 percent. The Hurricanes allow the seventh-least shots on goal per 60 minutes of shorthanded time, the second-least shot attempts against, the fourth-least scoring chances against and the 10th-least high-danger scoring chances against.

So, if the defense is so great, why haven't the Hurricanes stacked wins throughout the entire season?

Well, part of the reason is because of the goaltending, but it's not all fair to place all of the blame on Cam Ward and Lack. While neither have put up eye-popping numbers this year, the Hurricanes have scored two goals or less 28 times this year.

That's a big problem for the Hurricanes. But they are slowly starting to fix both their troubles of scoring and goaltending.

If we look at the Hurricanes' PDO over the course of the season, the outlook for the Hurricanes remainder of the season should be relatively encouraging. PDO is simple: It's a team's save percentage plus their team shooting percentage. It's a general way of determining how "lucky" a team is. 100 is the baseline of the PDO score. So if a number is well above 100, a team is seen as pretty lucky. If the number is well below 100, a team is seen as pretty unlucky.

At even-strength 5-v-5 this year, the Carolina Hurricanes have a PDO of 98.2 in all game situations. That's the second-lowest total in the NHL. It's only a slightly higher score than the Hurricanes had last season,when they finished dead last with 97.1. For the most part, these numbers tend to gravitate towards 100 at some point during the season. And, over the last 25 games, the Hurricanes' luck has been changing. Take a look at their PDO scores, especially during the month of January (where Carolina got points in 10 of their 13 games).

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When the score finally rises to 100, the Hurricanes tend to win. And that's because they play great possession hockey, and they generate lots of shot attempts while keeping their opponents' totals down to a minimum.

Between offensive production from Versteeg, Justin Faulk, Eric Staal, Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask and Skinner, the Hurricanes have the offensive talent to generate points. Jordan Staal is one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. Ron Hainsey, John-Michael Liles and Hanifin fill in a deep defensive unit. And Lack and Ward can perform well on any given night.

So, yes, the Hurricanes can make the playoffs. And that is going to make their situation a little bit strange over the course of the next month. Because if those wins start to come, what does this team do at the trade deadline? Are they still going to sell those pieces as they were rumored to at the beginning of the season? Or will they be players at the deadline and look for some big time rentals to shore up their forward unit?

Those are difficult questions general manager Ron Francis will ponder over. Because it'll be difficult to look someone like Eric Staal in the face after he's led his team to a playoff spot for just the third time in his 12-year career with Carolina and tell him, 'sorry, the return on you is just too large' and completely turn his back on him.

But one thing is for certain: This team believes in themselves. And they have the resume to prove it.

Tommy Chalk writes about the NHL and NFL for FOX Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @Tommy_Chalk

All statistics provided by War on Ice. Graph provided by War on Ice.