Carolina’s problem with the Southeast

As of right now, the Hurricanes are in a good position to both make the playoffs and win the Southeast Division. They basically need to play a little better than .500 hockey for the rest of the season to qualify for the playoffs and it may not even be that much if the rest of the Eastern Conference continues to struggle, according to Sports Club Stats. In other words, all the Canes have to do for the rest of the year is not play terribly and they should find themselves in the post-season. Sound easy enough, right?

The Hurricanes have assembled a pretty decent squad this year, too. They are winning the battle at even strength, have one of the best first lines in the NHL and they've managed to get to 14-9-1 despite playing with a depleted roster for most of the season. The squad isn't perfect, though as they have had plenty of woes on special teams this season but the most frustrating things with the Hurricanes, by far, has been their play within the division.

While the Hurricanes haven't played that many intra-Southeast games this season, they have won only two of seven meetings against divisional opponents nad have been outscored 25-16 in those games. What has put them at the top of the division is a strong 12-4-1 record against the rest of the Eastern Conference, including an impressive 4-1-1 record against the Atlantic Division. That being said, the Hurricanes are going to need to start winning some more games within their own division if they are going to make the playoffs, because most of their remaining games are against these teams.

The fact that Carolina has had such little success in the Southeast is a bit perplexing. The Southeast is the weakest division in the league and the fact that Carolina has gone 2-5-0 against these teams is confusing when you look at their performance against teams who are better. This goes beyond just wins and losses, too as the Hurricanes have recorded plenty of blowouts wins over Atlantic & Northeast teams.

Southeast 15 20 1 5 0 0
Atlantic & Northeast 47 28 11 13 1 3

Carolina has outscored the Atlantic & Northeast teams by almost 20 at even strength, while they are averaging barely two goals per game against the Southeast. Their numbers against the Southeast would actually look a lot worse had it not been for that six-goal performance against Florida last Saturday night. Even when you add in the special teams goals, they are still outscoring the rest of the Eastern Conference by 15 goals. So, what's the root of the problem here? Does Carolina have a problem getting ready for games within the division? I would buy that excuse if the teams they were playing outside of the Southeast weren't significantly better than what they are facing within their own division.

Taking a closer look at their numbers against the Southeast shows that poor luck has played somewhat of role in their divisional struggles.

Southeast 197 178 362 311 105 96 7.6% 0.888
Atlantic & Northeast 392 392 791 795 222 220 12.0% 0.928

ESSF = Even strength shots for, ESSA = Even strength shots against, CorF = Corsi For, CorA = Corsi Against, ESCF = Even strength scoring chances for, ESCA = Even strength scoring chances against, ES Sh% = even strength shooting percentage, ESSV% = Even strength save percentage

For the most part, Carolina has been able to control play and outchance their divisional opponents at even strength. I'm not sure how much predictive value this has because they were also playing from behind in most of these games, but I wouldn't bank on their goaltending being that bad for their remaining 11 games against the Southeast. Their shooting percentage against the Southeast is also below average but they haven't gotten absurdly unlucky either.

On the other hand, Carolina hasn't been blowing away the rest of their competition at even strength and yet, they've managed to outscore them by 15 thanks to the team having a shooting percentage of nearly 13%. That obviously isn't going to stay that high for the entire year and it's also doubtful that the Ellis/Peters tandem will stop nearly 93% of the shots they see for the rest of the year. In other words, it's been a tale of extremes for the Hurricanes with them getting all the bounces against teams who aren't from the Southeast.

I would expect those to even out as the year goes on and the Canes will have a chance to pad their lead this week with two games against Washington and a road game against Tampa Bay coming up. At the same time, Carolina will probably struggle against the rest of the Eastern Conference since they aren't controlling the play enough for them to remain dominant. They also have games remaining against Boston, Pittsburgh & Montreal, who are among the best teams in the East and will pose a tough test for the Canes.

In the end, I think things will eventually even out and the Hurricanes will make the playoffs since they're in a good enough position now. The only way I could see things going wrong is for them to suffer injuries to more key players and their underlying numbers to take a nose-dive as a result. We've known to expect the unexpected in this shortened season, so let's hope that things continue to go well for the Hurricanes in this second half.