Commentary

DeCock: Six-game road trip could determine this season's direction for Hurricanes

ldecock@newsobserver.comFebruary 1, 2013 

— Alex Semin skated through four different Ottawa Senators to set up Eric Staal’s game-winning goal Friday night. As challenging as that was, it was nothing compared to the obstacle course his team now faces.

The Carolina Hurricanes now have to skate through six straight road games, and it’s no exaggeration to say their season is hanging in the balance.

The Hurricanes departed the Triangle quickly Friday after a very nice 1-0 win over the Senators, not to return for almost two weeks. When they do, they’ll have a pretty good idea which way their season is headed.

Six games, 11 days, all on the road, starting Saturday night at the Philadelphia Flyers: The six most important games of the Hurricanes’ season.

Dan Ellis has already been through this once this season. He was in Charlotte (AHL) when the Checkers opened the season on a nine-game road trip and went 6-2-1. That could have sunk their season, but that successful trip helped springboard them to the best record in the league.

“It was a great start, and when you can do something like that and come out on top, that’s the key,” Ellis said after making his case to start again Saturday with a 33-save shutout of the Senators. “Those are the moments of the season, the moments in the schedule, when you really have a chance to climb that ladder and get up there.”

Friday’s win sent the Hurricanes onto the road on a good note, but how they fare on this road trip, encompassing one-quarter of the road games they’ll play this season, will likely determine how the rest of the season will go. By the time they get back, they’ll be 12 games into the season, the schedule 25 percent complete. In today’s NHL, with the bogus point for an overtime or shootout loss, that’s when the standings calcify and significant movement becomes almost impossible.

In an 82-game season, that tends to hit right around Thanksgiving. In a 48-game season, it’ll be Valentine’s Day, after they wrap up the road trip on Feb. 12 at the New Jersey Devils. In the interim, they’ll visit the Flyers, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Senators, the Flyers again, the New York Islanders and the Devils.

“The fact of the matter is it’s six games, on the road, in a row,” Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said. “But it’s six single-game segments: one forty-eighth of your season, one twenty-fourth of your road schedule. That’s how you play it. That’s how you have to play it. You take your global perspectives afterward, retrospectively. Going into the road trip, it’s not productive and it’s not effective to do that.”

The timing and the specifics of this road trip are unique -- “I don’t think I’ve ever played the same team twice in a road trip in 20-some years -- that’s a first,” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said -- but the circumstances are hardly novel.

A long road trip early in the season is a Hurricanes staple, usually to avoid playing home games during the North Carolina State Fair, and many a promising season has been sunk in October and November by the travel, the hostile road environments and the inevitable injuries.

Even more so this season, the team’s fate hangs in the balance over the next 11 days. If the Hurricanes play a more important game this season than any of this half-dozen, it’s only because they survived these six.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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