It was an adventure at times, but the Hurricanes appear to have survived the nightmarish schedule to open their season.
At 4-3-0, they aren’t setting any records after playing two games in Europe and five more across the home continent. However, they have built a foundation to take them through the more conventional part of their slate, beginning with Wednesday’s home opener against Washington.
“I think that coming off a road trip that was a very difficult schedule and having more confidence in yourself than when you left – we’re very happy about that,” said coach Paul Maurice. “I don’t know that being a game over .500 fires us up and that this is going to be easy for us, but I think it’s more a general understanding that we’re playing pretty good hockey, and if we keep improving in some areas we’ll be a good team.”
They weren’t necessarily heading in that direction after a 0-2 start to the North American stretch of the trip, but can feel good about the final three games of their world tour in San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix. They won two of those and had a very solid effort in the other, which was an encouraging sign given the flat 5-1 loss in Vancouver that immediately preceded them.
“You get to that point where your body just can’t feel any worse,” said Patrick Dwyer, summing up the loss against the Canucks. “You’ve got to just fight through it.”
The schedule now begins to balance out, with six of the team’s next nine games taking place in the friendly confines of the RBC Center. It won’t get much easier in terms of the quality of the opposition, with the division rival Capitals up first and the 5-3-1 Pittsburgh Penguins coming to town on Saturday, which will be the second of back-to-back games for Carolina.
In that way the test isn’t over, but the Canes are hanging in there so far.
“I’m a lot more comfortable right now than where I thought we’d be at this point,” said Maurice.
While the Canes’ lineup has been relatively consistent, Maurice has had to make a few difficult decisions regarding his extra forward. During the recent five-game swing, Zac Dalpe, Patrick O’Sullivan (twice) and Sergei Samsonov (twice) each found themselves as the odd man out at some point.
Based on Maurice’s comments on Monday, it sounds as though Samsonov, who has 2 goals in 3 games, could become more a fixture now that he’s back up to speed following his preseason neck injury. Although he scored in his first game back at Ottawa, Maurice felt that the Russian forward wasn’t quite ready for a full workload and was further set back by a high stick to the face in Vancouver.
“That injury was significant, and I didn’t think in his first games back that he was moving anywhere near the way he could,” said Maurice. “We felt in the practice before Phoenix that he looked like his old self, and he proved it in the game.”
Things begin to get complicated after that, with O’Sullivan, who enjoyed a strong training camp and scored the team’s lone goal in Vancouver after his first game on the sidelines, also making some claims for a spot. In addition, Jiri Tlusty is expected to return from his two-week conditioning stint in Charlotte no later than Tuesday.
With so many young players, not all of whom can be assigned to Charlotte without having to clear waivers, the Canes will have to vigilant with the distribution of ice time.
“Unless we’re on a really good roll, I’m sure we won’t leave a lot of the young guys out for any stretch of time,” said Maurice. “Then there will be players who are playing fine but not getting enough minutes to warrant them staying the whole year and not getting some games, and there are guys in Charlotte that are going to push for those jobs.”
Maurice expects to have Brandon Sutter, who was given the day off from practice on Monday, back on the ice Tuesday and available for the following night’s game. The center took a spill in Vancouver that saw his average ice time reduced by nearly six minutes in the following three games, but had not missed a practice or a game until Monday.