The Carolina Hurricanes could take some solace in leaving California knowing the worst, so to speak, could be behind them.
No team in the NHL had played more road games than the Canes. But Carolina’s remaining schedule — 31 home games, 23 on the road — looks a lot better, even if more condensed.
The Canes (11-11-6) played their 18th road game Saturday at San Jose, falling behind the Sharks early and losing 4-3. The Canes have won just four of the roadies (4-8-6), and entering Sunday’s NHL games were seven points out of a wild-card playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
The Philadelphia Flyers, who have played 18 of their 30 games at home, occupied one wild-card spot with 37 points. The Washington Capitals, after 14 home games and 12 on the road, were sitting at 35 points.
The Canes have won six straight at PNC Arena and host the Vancouver Canucks, Caps and Buffalo Sabres in the coming week. They have six of the next eight at home — add in Detroit, Boston and Chicago — before a New Year’s Eve game at Tampa Bay to end the calendar year.
“For us to make the playoffs, we have to play well at home,” Canes forward Lee Stempniak said after Saturday’s game. “We’ve risen to that challenge, and for us we need to come out and make hay when we can. All the points are needed in the standings, so it’s do or die.”
The past few weeks have been brutal for the Canes. They played three on the road, including a Thanksgiving Day game in Montreal, then returned to Raleigh for a Sunday game. Then, another three on the road and another Sunday home game.
Finally, this past week, it was hotels in California. The Canes couldn’t hold two-goal leads and lost in a shootout against the Anaheim Ducks, rebounded for a solid 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings and hoped to cap the trip by reeling in another two points against the Sharks, a team they blanked 1-0 in Raleigh in mid-November.
And then the Sharks scored in the first 12 seconds.
San Jose cruised through the neutral zone, something the Sharks did often early in the game, and Joe Thornton set up Patrick Marleau for a score.
“They had momentum right off the bat,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “Some guys were dialed in and others were a little late getting started.”
In a rarity, the Canes lost a game after getting two power-play goals — by Stempniak and Derek Ryan — and a shorthanded score by Joakim Nordstrom.
“Our specialty teams were probably better, and they were better than us five-on-five,” Peters said.
Jeff Skinner had a season-high 11 shots, and the Canes outshot the Sharks 33-20. Add in the shots that were blocked (24) and the missed shots (11), and Carolina had 68 attempts to the Sharks’ 44.
The Canes, trailing 4-2 after two, made a push in the third. Ryan scored on the power play, and the Canes again had 11 shots in the period.
Sharks goalie Aaron Dell lost the game in Raleigh. This time, he had 30 saves and won it as Cam Ward took the loss.
For Canes defenseman Matt Tennyson, a return to San Jose and another game against his former team was bittersweet. He took a stick across the nose from the Sharks’ Melker Karlsson and was left bloodied — a play missed by the referees that would have meant four power-play minutes for the Canes.
The Canes hope to get center Jordan Staal (concussion), forward Elias Lindholm (lower-body injury) and goalie Eddie Lack (concussion) back soon. When Staal and Lindholm return, some interesting personnel decisions must be made given how Ryan, Brock McGinn and Phil Di Giuseppe have played of late.
But the Canes can now unpack for a while. Their next extended road trip is in March.
“It will be nice to get home and get some practice time in,” Peters said.