With four points earned out of a possible eight, including points in three of four games, the Canes return to Raleigh relatively pleased with their tough trip. It didn’t always seem like that would be the case.
With a minute left in Saturday’s game in Tampa Bay, the Hurricanes were looking at a 0-2-1 record to start the trip, with the overtime loss representing a point lost more than a point earned thanks to New Jersey’s late comeback. While the Canes would still have liked to beat the Lightning and get two points, their last-gasp, two-goal charge would set the stage for a strong finish.
“You sit there saying, ‘This is our third game where we’ve played pretty darn well and it’s not looking good,’” said coach Paul Maurice of his pre-comeback mentality in Tampa Bay. “Sometimes if you hang around long enough and stay in the fight long enough, something good will happen for you. To get points in the last two of a tough trip, we’re pretty happy with the way it turned out.”
Survival might be the right term to use, because it could have swung the other way so easily. In the type of stretch that the Canes have encountered a few other times this season, Maurice felt they played their best game of the trip in Philadelphia, the only game in which they did not earn a point, and their worst in Atlanta, the only game in which they earned two.
“It’s a funny game, isn’t it?” said Maurice.
Rather than lament the fact that they took a season-low 17 shots on Sunday while allowing 43, their highest differential of the season, Maurice and company seem to be chalking most of that up to the fatigue of a long trip that ended with three games in four nights, all in different cities.
“We didn’t come out slow,” said Maurice. “We came out strong and just kind of faded as we got through the game.”
One player who had a noticeable amount of jump was winger Jerome Samson, who was playing his first NHL game of the season. The recall was a long time coming, as he’s been among the American Hockey League’s scoring leaders all season, ranking fourth with 58 points (26g, 28a) as of Tuesday. He played his first seven NHL games with the team last season, notching 2 assists.
“I was really excited to get the call, even thought it took longer than I expected,” he said, admitting some frustration at times. “When Rod Brind’Amour would come down to Charlotte, he would tell me just to keep focusing on the things that I can control and just try not to lose my focus.”
While every bit as prolific at the AHL level, the 23-year-old Samson doesn’t possess the long-term NHL upside of players like Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe, who have seen the bulk of the forward recalls this season. However, in the short term, he’s probably better suited for the checking role that the Hurricanes are using him in. On Tuesday, he practiced on the fourth line with Troy Bodie and Jussi Jokinen, who is expected to return from a lower-body injury Wednesday night in New Jersey.
“He’s more of a grinder, but he has excellent hands,” said Maurice, who noted that Samson playing more on the left wing in Charlotte contributed to the recall. “He hung onto a few pucks in the offensive zone (on Sunday) and created that offensive zone time, which is really what you’re looking for with that fourth line. Go out and eat some minutes, but you’d also like them to get some action around the net.”
“Paul was talking to me before the game about what I would have to do to have a good game,” said Samson. “We came to the conclusion that I had to win my battles and bring it to the net every chance I could.”
Samson did just that, particularly in the second period, when he took two of the Hurricanes’ five shots. Both were good scoring chances – one was a wraparound that goalie Ondrej Pavelec was able to block, and another was a hard wrist shot from the right circle that seemed to hit the goaltender in the shoulder, causing a big rebound and some chaos down low.
“He hasn’t played a lot for us, but he looked comfortable and looked like he was right into the game plan doing what we asked him to do,” said Maurice. “I was comfortable putting him on the ice.”
He may not get as much playing time as other forwards on the Hurricanes’ roster, but his shots-per-minute stat, if there was such a thing, should remain high. Samson leads the AHL with 245 shots on goal, 50 more than his nearest competitor.
“Since junior I’ve always been a guy that’s had a pretty good percentage on my shots,” he said. “I try to crash the net and be strong down low, and it works for me. It’s not always the pretty one that goes in, but that’s OK with me.”
In other words, he has the exact mentality that Maurice has been preaching to his regular players all season, but particularly during a stretch that’s seen them score just nine goals in their last four games, including two games with 22 or fewer shots on net.
“Absolutely the foundation of our offensive game is getting the puck to the net to start it,” said Maurice. “There’s a skill to that.”
With Ryan Carter (back) not making the trip to New Jersey, Samson will get at least one more game with the Hurricanes. Even if he ends up in the up-again-down-again routine so familiar for players on the cusp of making it, that’s OK with him.
“Last year I had a few calls and it kept flowing where I would get a few games here and a few games there,” he said. “It was good for my spirits, because every time I went back down I brought a new edge to my game.”