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As Sebastian Aho raced down the ice to tap in an empty-net goal that was his anyway, it meant more than merely a win. It was a third straight win for the Carolina Hurricanes, only their third streak of three wins or more this season. It was more progress in a different race, against the inexorable waning of the season.
The Hurricanes have been waiting years for a decent winning streak. With Friday’s 4-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, they have put themselves in position to build one, and there’s isn’t any question about if or when. It’s January, and they’re running out of time. If this isn’t the beginning of a significant winning streak, it’s the beginning of the end.
“It has to be,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
One chronic problem with the Hurricanes, because of their perpetual circumstance, is that everyone from management to players to fans is all too easily caught up in the swings and swoons of each game. Every result feels decisive. That’s life on the bubble in the three-point-game NHL, where there is neither security nor inevitability. Every game really does matter. Hope comes and goes like a spring breeze, abject despair is always a bad goal away. There is no big picture.
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And if the tug and pull of emotion surrounding the Hurricanes has felt all too familiar this season – for every glimmer of promise, two crushing defeats – it’s only because so many of the faces have changed and the circumstances have not. For whatever reason, and they change from year to year and even month to month or game to game, this team has been incapable of getting on any kind of a run, incapable of putting a respectable string of wins together.
It’s been nine full seasons since the Hurricanes won more than five games in a row; with the exception of 2016-17 when they won five in a row, they have had one four-game winning streak – and exactly one four-game winning streak – in each season since.
That inability to get on a run transcends coaches, captains, owners and the entire roster. It’s the leitmotif of a decade of futility. This year, the Hurricanes have had one early four-game streak, one three-game streak in November and now this.
Now the Hurricanes have given themselves a chance, but they have to follow through. Getting on a run of some length is the only way to salvage their season.
“We’ve got to get one at some point,” Brind’Amour said. “We’re running out of time to wait for that run. Every team that’s up there we’re chasing has done it at some point. If we want to get up there we’ve got to do it. If you get two, you’ve got to get three. Get three, you’ve got to get four.”
That’s what it would take, would still take, to get this team from the perpetual knife edge of relevance to a position of relative comfort where each and every loss wouldn’t feel like the impending end of humanity, where each shot that rings off the post didn’t feel like divine confirmation of a dismal fate.
The two wins over the Flyers – one of the few teams in the NHL with a worse record than the Hurricanes – gave them a platform to go forth, a foundation upon which to build a run. But that’s all it was: firm, bare, dry ground for construction, not any kind of accomplishment. A loss Friday, and it would all have been as well as wasted.
Instead, thanks to the unlikely contributions of Greg McKegg, the Hurricanes continued to more forward.
Even now, these are merely building blocks, toward something with some permanence, easily toppled with one misstep. The same is true Sunday in Ottawa. And with a win there over the woebegone Senators, it would be true again at the Islanders on Tuesday. And then again at Tampa Bay on Thursday, each step a little tougher than the next.
“We know where we are in the standings,” Micheal Ferland said. “We want to get something going. We’ve put ourselves in a good spot to build some momentum.”
This is the chance the Hurricanes have been waiting, desperately, to arrive. This is the time to get on a run and save their season. It’s now or never. They streak or they’re stuck.