by Jeremy "Fasttalker" Bjornberg - 02/27/2006
About three-fourths through the season, the Carolina Hurricanes are entrenched at the top of the Eastern Conference with 82 points and a 39-14-4 record. The new shootout format has been especially generous, as they have a 6-1 record in overtime this year. Although they have dominated thus far, many experts question whether this team has the talent and speed to win a championship. Coach Peter Laviolette seems to have this team on the right track and they have been playing team hockey the whole year.
The Hurricanes do have a nice blend of young and veteran talent, which starts with leading scorer Eric Staal (75 pts.) and ends with 15-year veteran Rod Brind'Amour (49 pts.). Staal has shockingly already scored more goals (36) than the total amount of points he had in his rookie season (31). Obviously the year of experience helped, but the new format also has had a profound effect. Brind'Amour also is enjoying a renaissance season of sorts and is on pace for more points than any season since 1998-1999. It is no surprise a young, quick player took advantage of the new rules, but it is strange a slow 35-year- old vet is also able to. Despite the team's success this year, they felt another element was needed, and they added playmaker Doug Weight for the stretch run. Despite Weight having been held scoreless in his five games as a Cane, his array of offensive skills will surely be taken advantage of as the season carries on.
Defenseman Frantisek Kaberle also is having the best season of his career. He already has a career high in assists (28), and has also added 14 power play points. D Bret Hedican also is playing some of his best hockey in almost a decade, and has provided the veteran rock that the team has needed. Although the defense has been solid, I would probably have to choose it as the weakness. Doug Weight was a great addition, but a blue liner with championship experience would have been a much better fit.
Much of the Hurricanes' success also must go to goaltender Martin Gerber, who has played exceptional all year. Gerber has also dominated the shootouts and seems to be responding very well to his first chance at a starting job. The 31-year-old has always played well when given the chance and he has a lot of similarities to ex-starter Arturs Irbe, who led the Canes to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002-2003. Gerber, however, is missing the element of pressure and experience that is usually present in quality playoff goaltenders. It remains to be seen if Carolina made the right choice by not getting a veteran to back him up.
The Canes did send eight Olympians to Italy. All of them play a very significant on the Canes. Luckily, none of the players were injured, but it remains to be seen if they will be fresh as the playoffs near. Carolina definitely has its most talented team since their inception, and will definitely be a favorite in the playoffs. The Canes have been fantastic at home with a 24-5-1 record, and they will enjoy home ice in the playoffs if they continue their winning ways. They have been tremendously consistent, and have the kind of blend that has led to a Stanley Cup in previous seasons. While the resurgence of the New York Rangers and the continued excellence of the Detroit Red Wings continue to dominate the media coverage, the Hurricanes are flying comfortably under the radar, right where they want to be. Don't count out the Hurricanes and keep an eye on them as a possible championship contender.