By Chip Alexander
On the first day of February, the Carolina Hurricanes secured a 1-0 victory against the Ottawa Senators at PNC Arena, then quickly packed up, ready to leave town.
Six road games in 12 days awaited the Canes – their longest road trip of the season and a critical stretch. They would play Philadelphia twice, face Ottawa again, go to Toronto and end it with a back-to-back set against the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils.
And to emerge from the trip 4-1-1? The Hurricanes go into Thursday’s home game against the Maple Leafs on top of the Southeast Division, more confident and with a far better grasp of themselves as a team.
“I think they learned they’re finding ways to win games,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said. “It hasn’t been pretty some nights. They’re coming together ... and we’ve got chemistry being built each game. I’m proud of the guys, the way they’ve dug in.”
Muller’s comments came Tuesday, after a 4-2 victory over the Devils that may well have been the Canes’ best of the season. Showing no signs of fatigue, the aggressive Canes got two third-period goals from Jiri Tlusty – the second an empty-netter – to outfight a Devils team that had won five straight and was leading the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
“It’s a great road trip,” Canes center Jordan Staal said. “It’s never easy being away from home for that long. To be able to go in other people’s buildings and take two points means there’s a lot of character in the room.”
One concern for the Canes was a second-period “lower-body” injury suffered by defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who did not return. Carolina did not practice Wednesday, and Pitkanen’s status is day-today.
The Hurricanes have completed a fourth of their 48-game regular season and now have played a third of their road games. At 7-4-1, they’ve rebounded from an 0-2 start, have integrated the new faces into the lineup, proven they can win on the road and carved out something of a team identity.
Few teams can match the production of the Canes’ top line of center Eric Staal and wingers Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty.
Staal has a 10-game point streak and was eighth in the NHL in scoring (16 points) through Tuesday’s games. He also was first in the league in plus-minus rating at plus-12.
Semin, who scored his 200th career goal Monday in the 6-4 win over the Islanders, was tied for second in plus-minus (plus-11) and Tlusty tied for fifth (plus-10).
Staal has scored eight goals to rank among the league leaders and the Canes were tied for fourth in goals per game at 3.17.
But Muller said the top line isn’t just putting up big numbers.
“What I like is they’re getting points but also playing the game the right way, as far as playing both ways,” he said. “They’re committed to the game plan.”
What needs work
While the Canes’ power play has shown some improvement, the penalty killing has been awful. The Islanders scored on four straight power plays in Monday’s game, and the Devils scored a first-period power-play goal.
The Hurricanes were 28th in the NHL at 71.7 percent before Wednesday’s games. They survived the fast-paced Islanders game by scoring six times and had critical third-period kills against New York and New Jersey, but the Canes must quickly improve their special teams play.
Most promising sign
Cam Ward in goal. He didn’t play during the NHL lockout and had to find his groove again.
He’s there. Ward went 4-0-1 on the road trip with a .926 save percentage. He stopped 41 of 42 shots in beating the Leafs 4-1 on Feb. 4.
“We like the direction we’re going,” Ward said. “We want to keep this momentum going.”