If anything this season, the Carolina Hurricanes kept their luggage and passports handy through the first 25 games.
The game Sunday against the Tampa Bay Lightning was just their 10th at PNC Arena. After three games this week on the West Coast, the Canes will have played 18 of the first 28 on the road.
“It has been an interesting schedule,” general manager Ron Francis said Monday. “It started with six straight out of the gate on the road, and we’ve just had a grinding stretch. It’s not easy for a young team, going into different buildings to play, sleeping in hotels, the travel.
“It has been a bit of a challenge but it’s part of the growing pains. It’s part of growing as a team.”
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The Canes are 10-10-5 after their 1-0 overtime win over the Lightning, their sixth straight victory at PNC Arena and their longest home winning streak since 2010. With 25 points, the Canes were four points out of playoff position after Sunday.
Contrast that with a year ago. The Canes’ 25th game, on Dec. 3, 2015, proved to be the low point of the 2015-16 season – a 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils at PNC Arena.
The Canes were 8-13-4. They ranked 30th on the power play and 28th in penalty killing. They were scoring 2.0 goals a game and their goaltending numbers were awful.
A year later, consistent scoring remains an issue. But the Canes were No. 1 in the NHL in penalty killing and 13th on the power play after Sunday’s game.
Cam Ward, playing as well as any goalie in the league in the past month, improved his goals-against average to 2.09 and save percentage to .924 after his second shutout of the season. A year ago, Ward had a 2.53 GAA and .898 save percentage after the first 25 games.
“I thought we struggled the first 10 or so games this season, trying to find our identity,” Francis said. “There has been some frustration but also some positives. We’re getting to the game we want to play. I’m happy with our effort.
“Everyone talks about our goal-scoring and certainly we’d like to score more. But when you look around the league, there are a lot of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 games and not many of those 7-6 games, like the old days.”
Francis noted one hockey axiom is if the combined percentages of your power play and penalty killing are 100 or more, it’s a sign of strong special teams. The Canes were at 18.7 percent on the power play and 91.3 on the penalty kill after Sunday.
While Canes coach Bill Peters had no complaints about winning Sunday, his team did fail to score in regulation. Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop had a hand in that, but Peters said some tweaks and adjustments need to be made.
“We’ve got to find a way to bear down,” Peters said. “Maybe we’ve got to stop dusting the puck off, stickhandling and get it off our stick quicker. Maybe we’ve got to get a little more net-front presence. Which isn’t maybe. We’ve got to be able to take our turn at the net, and we’ve got to get some greasy goals.”
The Canes have been without forwards Jordan Staal and Elias Lindholm — Staal missing the past four games with a concussion and Lindholm two with a lower-body injury. Both could return this week, although Francis said Staal’s availability remains in question.
The Canes added forwards Teuvo Teravainen and Lee Stempniak this season, expecting a boost in scoring. Teravainen, obtained in the June trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, has five goals but is scoreless the past nine games. Stempniak, a free-agent signee, had four goals in the first five games but has been scoreless the past 20.
“Teuvo came in, it was his first time being traded, trying to fit in, trying to understand a new system,” Francis said. “He’d probably say he struggled early but he’s getting more comfortable and has shown the skill he has.
“Lee had the hot start and has struggled recently. He’s getting offensive chances. If he keeps getting them it will turn around for him.”
The Canes have had a number of close losses, and the five in overtime or shootouts. Francis believes that also will turn around with a few more timely goals.
“Get over the hump and we can turn those one-goal losses into wins,” he said. “Our guys are competing, in every game They feel good about their game and feel good about each other.”