RALEIGH — So long. Farewell. Auf wiedersehen. Good night.
That's the last we'll see of the Carolina Hurricanes for a long time. In the wake of Friday afternoon's 2-1 overtime win over the Atlanta Thrashers to close out the North American portion of the preseason, they head for Russia (via Nova Scotia), and Finland, and Ontario, and British Columbia, and California, and Arizona.
More than 15,000 fans, including thousands of Wake County schoolkids, thought the price - free - was right to see the Hurricanes off on their sojourn. By the time hockey returns to the RBC Center, almost four weeks from now, the N.C. State Fair will have come and gone and the Hurricanes will have knocked out more than a sixth of their entire road schedule for the season.
"It's going to be a couple of days, but time passes quickly," Hurricanes forward Tuomo Ruutu said. "It feels like it was just announced that we were playing in Finland, and now we're actually going."
When they come back at the end of the month, a stiff one-two punch of the Washington Capitals on a Wednesday and Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday - with a Friday night game at the New York Rangers stuck between - is a double-edged welcome-home present from the NHL. That's a great opening weekend from a ticket-sales perspective, if not from a coaching perspective.
By the time this team graces the ice again, it may already be facing an uphill road to the playoffs. Or, if the team can emerge from this stretch in decent shape, it'll have a favorable home-heavy schedule the rest of the way. In other words, a lot is hanging on the month this team will be out of sight.
If there was one goal of paramount importance for this season, it was avoiding anything like last year's 2-12-4 start. And let's face it: It shouldn't be hard to improve on that mark, no matter what the schedule looks like.
"You can look at the schedule any way you want," Ruutu said. "If our first 10 games were at home, we'd be saying we're under pressure to win seven or eight of them."
It probably also bears mentioning that this team - with a leadership group that's 25, 27 and 21 - isn't exactly blessed with the kind of worldly experience that could help smoothly navigate the rough waters ahead.
On the other hand, that wasn't much of an asset last year, so maybe a little naiveté will do the trick this time around. Heck, some of these kids have spent so little time in the NHL, they might think this kind of road trip is entirely normal.
"That's kind of how we're going to approach it," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "We have a lot of guys who might not know this level of fatigue isn't the way you feel all year."
And if Cam Ward continues to play the way he did Friday - making point-blank stops on Bryan Little in the first period, Niclas Bergfors in the third and Little again in overtime - the Hurricanes may find smooth sailing ahead.
Either way, Friday's matinee was the last glimpse of this team in the flesh for weeks, and more than worth the price of admission after Brandon Sutter sent everyone home happy with his second goal of the game.
"There was a lot of energy for an exhibition game," Sutter said. "It was a good way to get things started. We don't come back here for eight or nine games, and I know we'll be excited to get back."