RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes are back at the RBC Center tonight to face the Florida Panthers in a game that may loom large in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
They'll carry into the game the momentum of two wins on a difficult three-game road trip, but that momentum started gathering before they ever left town.
Before the first of two home games before the trip, after coming out of the All-Star break with a 3-2 loss at the New York Rangers, the Hurricanes held a players-only meeting that changed the dynamic in the dressing room.
"Other teams were climbing up the standings, and we were hovering," Canes forward Ray Whitney said. "We talked for about three minutes. We said from now on, we can't afford to let games slip away. We let at least a point slip away in New York, and other teams aren't doing that."
The Canes beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 that night, followed that up with a win over the Atlanta Thrashers and headed west for three games.
It started poorly at the Vancouver Canucks, when the Canes gave up a short-handed goal with less than 90 seconds to play to lose in regulation. But they upset the San Jose Sharks, two nights later and closed out the trip with a 7-2 drubbing of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Whitney said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice helped the team leave the Vancouver loss in Vancouver, and the San Jose win in San Jose, digging into his bag of tricks from 2002 by talking about "not letting the highs get too high and the lows get too low, keeping an even keel."
It may be a cliche -- and all too familiar to Canes fans from the public pronouncements of Maurice and then-captain, now-assistant coach Ron Francis seven years ago -- but it helped the Canes get through a road trip that had way too much down time and only three games in seven nights.
"It was one of those long, useless trips, sitting around the hotel the whole time," Whitney said. "We realized before we left the importance of it."
Three years ago, during the Stanley Cup season, the Hurricanes used a long road trip in early December as a springboard to an NHL-record January. That road trip started with an overtime loss and a blowout loss and ended with three outstanding performances.
No one's comparing the two teams and two situations, but it's an example of how a road trip can act as a crucible for a team. Except this time, the transformation occurred first.
The question now, as always, is how long it will last. Four wins in five games -- six in eight going back to before the All-Star break -- is a good start.
"It gets to a point in everyone's season where you realize you're a pretender or a playoff team," Hurricanes forward Justin Williams said. "We were hovering around that circle again. We don't want to make the playoffs the last 10 games. We want to make it over the last 30."
The road trip, despite the slip-up in Vancouver, was a great test of that ethos. Tonight's game is an even bigger one.
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