The Carolina Hurricanes knew that the 12-day, six-game road trip at the outset of February would, perhaps, make or break them in this shortened season.
After stumbling out of the block in Philadelphia, the Hurricanes rebounded for points in five straight games, capping off their second-best six-game road swing in franchise history with a 4-1-1 record and nine points out of a possible 12.
Road warriors, indeed.
“Our team played very well right from the goalie through every player,” said President and General Manager Jim Rutherford. “Every player contributed.”
During the 12-day sojourn, the Hurricanes rotated 23 players in and out of the lineup. Though the basic framework of the lineup remained constant, the team never played the same group of 20 for more than two games in a row.
“We do have more flexibility. We have more options for Kirk to turn to,” Rutherford said. “We didn’t have that tough guy to turn to in the last few years, and now we have Kevin [Westgarth]. We talked about getting more grit and maybe trading for somebody, but we feel like we have it in the organization with Wallace.
“We have more options, more different types of players and more depth, even to the point that we have people playing in Charlotte that we’re comfortable bringing in.”
From early in the second period in the first game of the road trip on Feb. 2 through the final horn of Tuesday’s game in New Jersey, Cam Ward manned the crease for the Canes, doing so with gusto. In his first two starts in Toronto and Ottawa, he made 86 saves on 89 shots, facing over 40 shots and earning first-star honors in each game. He finished the road trip with a 4-0-1 record.
“It was only a matter of time,” Rutherford said of Ward’s return to form. “Without a training camp, you know it’s going to take a few players a few games to get to their A-game. Cam really won a couple of those games for us.”
The team’s first line of Jiri Tlusty, Eric Staal and Alexander Semin quickly morphed into a potent group, as they combined for 24 points (10g, 14a) in six games. Monday in New York, the line totaled nine points (4g, 5a) in the third period alone, as the Canes rallied to top the Islanders 6-4.
Tlusty is riding a three game goal streak and has scored two goals in each of his last two games. He’s also compiled seven points (5g, 2a) in his last three games.
Staal extended his point streak to 10 games Tuesday night, as he approaches his franchise-best 12-game point streak which he set from Feb. 8 through March 6 last season. In the 10-game stretch, Staal has posted 16 points (8g, 8a). He leads the team in goals, points and plus-minus (plus-11). Semin and Tlusty are plus-10 and plus-9, respectively, and the three rank first, second and third in the NHL in that statistical category.
“That’s what you hope for,” Rutherford said of the first-line production. “You don’t know what kind of chemistry you’re going to get when you add new players, but what we’re getting is certainly what I hoped for.”
After reassigning winger Zac Dalpe to Charlotte, Patrick Dwyer was promoted to the second line, alongside Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal. His ice time per game jumped from around nine minutes to as much as 19:04 on Tuesday, and he has scored two goals and recorded an assist since that change was made on Feb. 4.
“It’s not like a team can just watch one of our lines,” Rutherford said. “When you’re coming back-to-back with the two Staal lines, they’re strong and they’re big. That can be hard for teams to defend against.”
Perhaps the only downside to the road trip was the injury to Joni Pitkanen on Tuesday. The 29-year-old defenseman left the game in the second period with a lower-body concern and did not return. Rutherford said Pitkanen remains day-to-day.
If there was ever a “good” time to lose a top defenseman, it’s now; the Canes play just two games in the next week.
“We do have to be careful because we rely very heavily on him,” Rutherford said. “He plays a lot of minutes, and he’s a very important player for us.”
Just a few weeks into the season, the Hurricanes have already played a fourth of their games and a third of their road schedule. The team is 7-2-1 in their last 10 games and sit atop the Southeast Division with 15 points, bolstered by the 4-1-1 record earned on their 12-day road swing up and down the Eastern seaboard.
“It shows how our team is capable of playing. There are no guarantees. We have to stay focused and keep working on it,” Rutherford said. “There’s not a big difference between the worst team and the best team in this league. You just get as many points as you can whenever you can get them, and that’s what this team did on this road trip.”