The annual N.C. State Fair run is coming to an end. Not coincidentally, the the Carolina Hurricanes' run of four road games also has ended.
The Canes began the annual road swing with victories over Toronto and the New York Islanders. After a break and three practices in Raleigh, Carolina was beaten in back-to-back games by Minnesota on Thursday and Colorado on Friday.
It all adds up to a 4-4-3 record as the Canes prepare to play seven of the next eight games at PNC Arena.
“We've just got to find ways to win,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said after the 4-2 loss to the Avalanche at the Pepsi Center in Denver. “We've got to put a pretty good home stretch together.”
The Hurricanes also need to find a way to put together a strong first period. They’ve scored three goals in first-period play and been outshot 118-97 this season, a glaring shortcoming.
The Canes have trailed 2-0 after the first in three of the past five games – Chicago, Minnesota, Colorado – and have not led after the opening period since the second game of the season, against Philadelphia. They’ve failed to score in the first period eight times.
“You're not going to win hockey games on a consistent basis in this league if you don't have a good first period,” Muller said. “The old saying is catchup hockey usually is losing hockey.”
Against the Avs, the Canes allowed two first-period goals in falling behind 2-0. Drayson Bowman scored for Carolina 12 seconds in the second, taking a pass from Jordan Staal and ripping a shot from the right circle to pull the Canes to 2-1. But the Avs led 3-1 after two, then picked up an early power-play score from Matt Duchene in the third to make it a 4-1 game.
“It isn't easy to come back,” Canes center Jordan Staal said. “We have to find a way to have a better start and play the way we did in the second and most of the third.”
Andrej Sekera scored in the third for the Canes, coming in on the back side to beat Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov and make it 4-2. The Canes also had chances on the power play, with Varlamov making a spectacular save on a point-blank Alexander Semin shot.
“It was a good power play,” Staal said. “We moved the puck well and couldn't find a way to bury it. We have to find a way to play with that killer instinct and get our power play going.”
Staal never mentioned the Canes' injuries in his postgame interview. It was more about what the Canes need to do to get better.
“It's two tough games we've got to learn from,” Staal said. “There's still things in our game that aren’t good enough.”
The fatigue of the two games wasn't a factor, or the mile-high altitude of Denver. The Canes outshot the Avs 16-8 in the final period and 22-16 in the final two periods.
But again, a listless first was too much to overcome. The Canes were outshot 18-8 and needed some hustling work in killing off a long 5-on-3 power play by the Avs to keep it a two-goal deficit.
“They came out real strong in the first,” Canes goalie Justin Peters said. “For us to kill that 5-on-3 got some momentum for us.”
A plus for the Canes was that defenseman Tim Gleason was able to play for the first time this season after missing the first 10 games because of a concussion. Gleason had more than 17 minutes of ice time in his 600th career game.
Forward Elias Lindholm also was able to return after missing five games with a shoulder injury and was plus-1 for the game. Sekera had a goal and assist and Jiri Tlusty earned his first assist of the season.
Next up for the Canes is a home game Monday against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens beat Carolina 5-2 in early October in Pittsburgh as former Canes forward Jussi Jokinen had a hat trick.
The Canes will practice Sunday and it's possible goalie Anton Khudobin, out the past five games with a lower-body injury, could do some skating. Forward Jeff Skinner, who missed the Avs game with an upper-body injury, also could return.
Muller was asked if he could identify a common thread in the slow first-period starts.
“Guys just have to find a way to prepare themselves to get ready to play,” he said. “We pick up the tempo later on and get going … but it's tough when you give a lot of these teams the lead. It gives them a chance to sit back and play a smart game.”