RALEIGH, N.C. --- The standings may not show it, but the Carolina Hurricanes are playing solid hockey these days.
They aren't on any kind of hot streak, but for a team that was as rudderless as it gets two months ago, netting 19 points in their last 16 games is positive hockey. And finding ways to generate points sometimes means winning grinders, something the Hurricanes achieved Monday night in a 2-1 victory over the visiting Winnipeg Jets.
This victory, perhaps more than any other, exemplified the directional shift within the locker room since Kirk Muller was hired Nov. 28.
"I'm really happy with the effort, first of all," Muller said Monday in the bowels of the RBC Center. "If you don't put in better effort in like tonight, and recently, you're not going to get results. They have been focused on the little details of the game, and our leaders are leading."
Muller said everyone on the roster feels like they are contributing, and perhaps no player in needed to regularly grace the stat sheet than Jeff Skinner, who appears quite comfortable with his recent move to center. Skinner scored again Monday night flipping in his own miss that rebounded off of Winnipeg goaltender Chris Mason to give Carolina an early 1-0 lead.
He finally scored his first goal in 45 days in Saturday's loss at the New York Islanders. The second-year star missed five weeks after suffering a concussion on Dec. 7, but has played well since returning. Getting him back in the lineup was a bit of a juice injection to the Canes, but that he's playing well amplifies his impact.
Yet, it's on defense where the Canes have made their biggest move.
Goaltender Cam Ward made two first-period goals stand up by registering 29 saves on the night. He allowed a tough rebound shot by Kyle Wellwood to sneak by with six minutes left in the second period. Otherwise, Ward was once again brilliant.
Since his well-documented fit of frustration Dec. 9 in Winnipeg after being pulled in second period, Ward has gone 9-4-5 and given up more than three goals just twice. More recently, Ward hasn't allowed more than two goals in his last nine contests.
He pitched a shutout last Friday at home versus rival Washington, and in Saturday's overtime defeat, Ward registered 38 saves. He says it's not all him, though.
"We've made a commitment to being better in our own zone," Ward said. "And when you're better in your own zone you can generate more offense off of it. We want to make sure we are in every game and tonight was another great night for our defense."
In addition, one can argue that no player is more emblematic of the team's mindset and approach over the last month than defenseman Jay Harrison. He has totaled seven points with four goals this month and five scores total dating back to a New Year's Eve loss at Tampa Bay. Harrison has grown into a first-line defender using his size (6-foot-4, 211 pounds), intelligence and work ethic to earn that distinction.
Harrison is a self-made player who takes pride in being a supreme teammate and gives it everything he has every night without a drop off. So it's no surprise he doesn't mind winning grinders. It suggests the nose is clearly pointed in the right direction, and that's all he cares about.
"We need games like this to climb the standings," he said. "You need to be in a dog fight and have a goalie play outstanding, net a couple of goals. We weren't getting that at the beginning of the year, and to come out with two points we can build on that, and you'll forget that it wasn't out best performance but it was a winning performance."
The victory ensures Carolina a winning record this month, its first of the season, and the Canes are 8-5-2 since Dec. 23. They are also 10-11-4 under Muller after starting out 8-13-5.
And despite entering the night tied for the last spot in the Eastern Conference, some of the Canes have even made mention recently about making a push for the playoffs. The Hurricanes are still 10 points behind the eighth and final playoff line, but with 31 games remaining, crazier things have happened.