The Hurricanes will soon see the road-heavy first half of their schedule even out over the stretch drive, but not before enduring a very difficult trip over the next week.
On Tuesday, the Canes begin a four-game swing that won’t see them return home until Sunday night. In addition to playing Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, the Eastern Conference’s top two seeds through Sunday’s games, they’ll also face a resurgent New Jersey team before wrapping things up against Atlanta - their main competition for a playoff spot over the last several weeks.
“We’re going to play some very difficult teams,” said coach Paul Maurice. “(Knowing) how to play these important games on the road is a necessity for a team that wants that playoff success. You have to be able to win very tight games against good opponents on the road.”
The trip kicks off against a Devils team that endured a nightmare start to the season but has righted the ship since bringing back former coach Jacques Lemaire. The Devils are 9-1-2 in their last 12 games, but won’t have starting goaltender Martin Brodeur (knee) available to face Carolina on Tuesday, with Johan Hedberg expected to start.
The scheduling of the season series is unfortunate for the Hurricanes, who faced the Devils just once during their difficult first half – a 6-3 victory on New Year’s Day – but will see them three times over the next 12 days now that they’re at the top of their game. After this trip, the Canes will only be in Raleigh for two days before leaving for New Jersey once again.
“That’s the way we’ve played them for the last 10 years – at their best it seems,” said Maurice. “We missed the two and a half months where they had a bit of a struggle, and now we get them back as normal.”
The trip wraps up Sunday against the Thrashers, who will be waiting at home while the Canes take on Tampa Bay one night earlier.
“There’s only one back-to-back in it, but unfortunately it’s at the end with the team that we’re tied with,” said Maurice.
As daunting as this trip may seem, the Hurricanes can take comfort in that it will be their last prolonged period away from home for the rest of the season. Once they’re back, 17 of their remaining 25 games will be at the RBC Center, with only single-game road trips remaining on either side of longer home stretches.
The team will also be glad to bring some confidence with them, as they’ll depart on a high note following Saturday’s big overtime win against the Atlanta Thrashers. Had they faltered in that game and continued to find themselves out of playoff position, things may have been more difficult.
“That’s the kind of win you want to build off and take momentum from,” said Eric Staal. “As a whole, it was a playoff-type game that we battled through.”
It looks as though the Canes will be without Jussi Jokinen for the duration of the trip, with coach Paul Maurice saying that he did not expect the Finnish forward to leave with the team on Monday. That means Zach Boychuk, who played limited minutes on the fourth line in the Canes’ last game but played well, will get a longer look.
Other than Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu was the only player to miss practice on Monday. Maurice said that his second-line center had been feeling ill but is not expected to miss any games.
“Anytime now at this point in the season when someone’s feeling a little under the weather, you try have them spend as little time with the rest of the team as possible,” said Maurice. “He was feeling probably worse Saturday night and played.”