As the year comes to a close, I wanted to start doing a column at the end of every month that gives an update on how the Carolina Hurricanes are doing. 2017 was a year that brought the Hurricanes an overwhelming amount positives, regardless of missing the playoffs. Let’s review December.

What’s been happening?

In December, the Canes recorded eight wins and 26 points for a total record of 8-5-2. The Canes tallied five total overtime games in the month. The biggest news of all is that your Hurricanes finished the month two points clear of the Pittsburgh Penguins and lie only one point out of a playoff spot. The fact that Carolina could sit in a wild card spot, even if it is only halfway through the season, is pretty exciting.

It was a confidence-boosting month for the team, as they took down some elite teams like the red-hot Las Vegas Golden Knights, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, and the runner-up Nashville Predators. The team answered all of the criticisms it had been attracting by scoring lots of goals and holding onto leads. The Hurricanes averaged 3.73 goals per game in December, which is the exact kind of offense they’ll need to compete in the high-flying Metropolitan Division.

Just Faulk finally returned to somewhat decent form recording two goals and two assists in the month. The co-captain has been dreadful this season, looking nothing like the all-star he usually is. The blue line is playing well, especially with the likes of Derek Ryan and Noah Hanafin stepping up, but Faulk needs to play like the leader he was deemed. He has been the rock of this team for the last couple of years and I hope to see him back in that role in the new year.

One of the best things that happened this month was the number of different players that scored a goal. It has not just been the Jeff Skinner show with 12 Hurricanes getting at least goal this month. This is the type of team head coach Bill Peters has been creating the last couple of seasons: a multi-headed monster that can beat teams upfront, from the blue line, or anywhere in between.

Goalie Cam Ward was his usual December self, recording a 7-1 record, with the sole loss coming in OT. His save percentage for the month clocks in at .926 and he allowed 2.25 goals per game. His goals allowed average could be better, but what is Hurricanes hockey without a bunch of goals allowed anyway?

What’s happening next?

The biggest thing for Carolina to focus on moving forward will be the development of Scott Darling. The goalie’s play has been encouraging, but he still lacks a starter’s poise. Darling was limited to starting seven games and only recorded one win. Granted, three of those games were decided by one goal and one of his losses was in OT. Ward is historically good in December, so let him cool off and give Darling the reigns for January.

This month’s schedule is full of some heavy offensive teams, including the Washington Capitals, who average 3 goals a game. The Canes will take on the Capitals on three different occasions, while having two more bouts with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and an away match against the Tampa Bay Lightning, to highlight the better matchups. PNC Arena will also host the Golden Knights for the first time in franchise history on January 21.

The biggest phase of this month will be the re-introduction of some key players into the lineup. Lee Stempniak, who has been rehabbing several different injuries the entire season, may practice with the team as early as this week in hopes to play his first game of the season. Centerman Lucas Wallmark was recently called up from the AHL and scored his first NHL goal in the Canes’ game against the St. Louis Blues. With the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate team, the Charlotte Checkers, playing so well, we could be seeing quite a few new faces this new year.

What to watch for

#1. Keep an eye on Sebastian Aho

Aho had a great month, posting six goals, five assists, and a 15.4 shooting percentage. The Finnish winger will look to lead the team in goals for the first time in his career. He has already started 2018 off with a bang, recording an assist in the team’s OT loss to the Washington Capitals.

#2. Improvements on the penalty kill

The Hurricanes currently sit with a penalty kill percentage of 78.7. This has been Bill Peters’ strong suit in his tenure at head coach so far, so some improvement is on its way. Peters’ squad will surely climb the ranks from their current position at 24th.

#3. More overtime wins

The Hurricanes lead the NHL with 12 overtime appearances so far this season but have only recorded five wins in those games. This team loves to secure that extra point yet fails to capitalize most nights. Veterans like Jordan Staal need to start actually leading and carry the team through these longer games. Those two extra points could be the difference for that last wild card spot.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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