The Hurricanes are homeless no longer.
The road trip that seemed like it would never end finally has, with the Canes set to take on the Washington Capitals in their long-awaited home opener at the RBC Center.
Having fended for themselves quite well during the 7-game journey through Finland, Canada and the American west coast – a trip that had them wake up outside of Raleigh 18 times in October’s 27 days, most of them in another time zone - they’ll finally have the foreign experience of playing in their native surroundings.
“It seems really unusual to be talking home opener now, no question about it,” said coach Paul Maurice, who recalled playing his first home game later in the calendar when the RBC Center first opened, but not necessarily later into season. “I think when the TV announcers say that, there will be a lot of people watching that are trying to figure that one out.”
Maurice went on to say that the players’ natural excitement to be playing at home should work to their advantage, but cautioned against getting too carried away.
“The real danger here with Washington is that if you try to get too fancy with them, they’ll burn you,” he said.
Tonight’s game marks the first career home game for rookies Zac Dalpe and Jeff Skinner, who made their NHL debuts in Helsinki earlier this month. Maurice indicated that he wouldn’t be surprised if they encountered a whole new set of jitters despite their by-now obvious comfort level on the road, something Skinner said could be a factor at first.
“It almost feels like we’re starting our season all over again,” said Skinner, who has moved out of the hotel and into his own place in Raleigh, not that his play to start the season should have cast any doubt on his status as a legitimate NHL player. “It will be exciting to get out there in front of the home fans.”
Dalpe will stay in the lineup despite the more veteran presence of Patrick O’Sullivan and Jiri Tlusty, who will serve as healthy scratches for tonight’s game. After starting the year as the fourth line center, he’ll yield that spot to Patrick Dwyer as he moves over to right wing. Full lines can be found here.
“We’ve had some young players come in that we like as players and the NHL and we think are ready to be here, but asking them to play center is a task,” said Maurice.
Although neither team has had a chance to cement themselves in the standings one way or another at this young point in the season, records haven’t seemed to matter in recent Carolina-Washington contests.
Despite the gap in the teams’ fortunes last season (Washington went 54-15-13 to run away with the Presidents’ Trophy, while Carolina missed the playoffs at 35-37-10), they posted identical 3-1-2 records in their head-to-head meetings. The largest margin of victory for either team was a 6-3 Carolina road win on Dec. 28, with the Canes’ lone regulation loss coming by one goal on Nov. 30 at the RBC Center.
The moral of the story is that, even if one team is favored entering any given contest, it doesn’t seem to matter too much.
“We play as hard as we possibly can against Washington every time, and a big part of that is the fact that they have so many weapons on that side,” said coach Paul Maurice. “You know you’ve got to skate to compete with that team, and I think that’s why we play some of our best hockey against them.”
That’s especially true of star players on either side. Eric Staal (44 points in 42 games), Niklas Backstrom (22 in 20), Alexander Semin (38 in 29) and Alexander Ovechkin (47 in 35) always seem to have good games, as does goaltender Cam Ward (13-5-2, 2.63 goals-against average).