It’s already been a long road, but the culmination of the Hurricanes’ trip to Europe begins Thursday night against the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki.
Although he acknowledged it’s difficult to say for sure, coach Paul Maurice and his players feel that they’re well-prepared for the start of the regular season despite the highly-unorthodox schedule.
”I’m comfortable with where we’re at,” said Maurice. “It’s harder to gauge certain things when you’re not in your normal environment, but the focus and the communication on the ice and all of the things that we had set out at the start of camp to be good at - we’re still good at.”
“It’s been different, but we had a really good camp,” said Erik Cole. “We all feel good about where we are as a team.”
As Maurice pointed out, the Hurricanes won’t have any advantages or disadvantages against their opponents, who have gone through a similar process. The Wild may feel a bit more at home in Finland, having been here for nearly a week compared to Carolina’s two days, but both are far from home.
The strange routines in strange places have made the fact that the season is here seem almost surreal.
“It really doesn’t feel like (the season is starting) right now, but starting at the team dinner tonight and going through the morning skate tomorrow, it will,” said Cole.
Ever since the trip was announced, it’s been clear that the team-building aspect was always going to be one of its biggest advantages. The benefits have already been seen in the way they stuck up for each other during the game in Russia and their camaraderie surrounding Tuesday’s highly-successful players-only trip to Sauna Island in Helsinki.
“I’ve been to the sauna many times, but never like that,” said Joni Pitkanen. “The guys looked like they had a lot of fun. Even Erik Cole was happy, and he was chirping me all the time before.”
“We’re keeping check marks for Russia and check marks for Finland, and I was letting Joni know that Russia was ahead at that point,” explained Cole. “He told me that Sauna Island would put Finland in the lead, and he was not lying. It was a great time.”
However, Cole did admit that he was skeptical at first.
“Honestly I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I knew that you sat in the sauna and then you jumped in the ocean, and I thought, ‘Wow, that sounds like a hoot!’”
Tuomo Ruutu, the event’s organizer, was nervous about how the players would receive the trip to Sauna Island but said that their overwhelming approval meant a lot to him. That didn’t stop him from poking a little fun at teammates who were unable to stand the heat of the sauna for more than a few minutes at a time.
“It’s lack of practice,” said Ruutu, who saunas three to four times a week during the summer.
After an intense start to training camp nearly three weeks ago, the last two practices in Helsinki have definitely had more of an in-season feel. The only thing missing on Wednesday was defenseman Joe Corvo, whose lower-body concern from the SKA St. Petersburg game on Monday has him at least a little questionable to play the first game against the Wild.
“It’s just kind of an overuse injury and we want to rest him,” said Maurice. “We’ll try him tomorrow morning. If he says he feels good he plays, and if he doesn’t we’ll hold him another day.”
With or without Corvo, it’s still unclear as to how the defensive lineup will look. The Canes will need one or two of Brett Carson, Jay Harrison and Bobby Sanguinetti, but all have participated equally in the two Helsinki practices without regular pairing partners. There should be some kind of update on that after tomorrow’s morning skate (as the “visiting team,” the Hurricanes have the late session at 11:30 a.m. local time.
Since they're much more regimented and closer to what they've done hundreds of times, the consensus around the team is that the next two days will fly by. It would appear that the effect of the trip will last longer than that.
"The travel has been tough at times, but I do think this is going to be beneficial to us in the long run," said Cole. "Even years from now we’re going to remember all the things we did and all the little laughs we shared on the bus."