Commentary

DeCock: Road trip holds key to Carolina Hurricanes' season

ldecock@newsobserver.comFebruary 24, 2014 

— The Carolina Hurricanes have been gone for two weeks during the Olympic Break, and now they’ll leave town for another week to start the final stretch. By the time they finally return to PNC Arena on March 7, their playoff fate may be all but decided.

With 25 games to play, the Hurricanes resume the schedule with a five-game, continent-spanning road trip that looms as particularly pivotal. It’s long, difficult, grueling and, potentially, season-deciding. Maybe more than that.

Given the absolute imperative that the Hurricanes end their four-year playoff drought this season, and the potential consequences for the roster and the front office if they fail, it may not be hyperbole to say these five games could go a long way toward determining the future of the franchise.

“I don’t think it’s productive to view things in that scope,” Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said. “It gets a little too macroscopic. We have to focus on what we can control and play five one-game road trips, so to speak.”

As one five-game trip or five one-game trips, it’s the most important road swing the Hurricanes have embarked upon in years, without question. And it’s a nasty one.

At Buffalo on Tuesday.

At Dallas on Thursday.

At Los Angeles on Saturday.

At Anaheim on Sunday.

At San Jose on March 4.

Five games, eight days, from one side of the continent to the other and back again.

Of the five opponents, only the Sabres are not currently in playoff position. The Ducks have the best record in the NHL, and the Hurricanes will play them as the second half of a back-to-back, with the Ducks sitting in Anaheim waiting for them.

It would have been a difficult trip even before the Hurricanes’ Jan. 7 game at Buffalo was wiped out by a blizzard and rescheduled for Tuesday, a day technically still part of the NHL’s Olympic break. That put it over the top.

“It’s a good challenge for us,” Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. “Right off the bat we’re in some key games. Hopefully, for our group, we’ve had a good couple days of practice now and we can ramp it up and catch some teams that are maybe trying to get their feet wet and back into it. We’ll be raring to go and playing our structured game and be able to take advantage of that. And it starts in Buffalo.”

There are five of these five-game segments left in the season, but this first one has the potential to make or break the Hurricanes.

If they survive, they’ll be in good position down the stretch, the toughest part of their schedule safely behind them. If they come home from the West Coast empty-handed, or close to it, they’ll have almost no shot at making up the ground in the remaining 20 games.

Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller figures it will take 94, maybe 95 points to make the playoffs, a fair estimate. The Hurricanes have 61. The math involved isn’t exactly calculus.

Fortunately, the Hurricanes feel like they’re in a good place coming out of the break.

“I think we’re on the cusp of something really good,” Harrison said. “We’re at a point where we’ve seen our potential, although it has been in a limited scope and capacity, and we’ve brought it some nights and come up short. We’re at a point where we know, and we can see it, and it’s within our grasp. We have to take it, seize it, take that step collectively as a team.”

There’s no better time than now. By the time they return home, they’ll know exactly where they stand.

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

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