Is it too early to start looking at the NHL standings?
Probably. But the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers have played five games, fewer than anyone else in the Eastern Conference, and the Canes are in the thick of things with a 3-1-1 start and seven points.
The New Jersey Devils have been the biggest early surprise in the Metropolitan Division with a 6-1-0 start, four road wins and 12 points. But the Canes have to like their position.
Beating the Calgary Flames 2-1 on Thursday gave the Canes a second straight road win. Carolina did that late last season, but consecutive road wins during the annual N.C. State Fair road trip in October has been a tougher go.
A year ago, the Canes had six straight road games to begin the season – the World Cup of Hockey forced a later start for the NHL – and were 1-3-2. The Canes did win back-to-back games at Detroit and New Jersey in October during the 2015-16 season, when they played seven straight away from home and were 4-3-0.
The year before, however, they were 0-4-1 in the October road trip. That was Bill Peters’ first year as Canes’ coach.
This year’s four-game swing had a disappointing start, with a grinding 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. The Canes won Tuesday, beating the Edmonton Oilers 5-3, but Peters was irked by the 51 shots allowed, forcing goalie Cam Ward to make 48 saves in his first start of the season.
“When we’re on our toes we want to be the team setting the tone,” Peters said before the Calgary game. “We want to be aggressive and force the issue.”
The Canes did against the Flames. They got to pucks quickly and moved the puck crisply when they had it, transitioning with speed and maintaining puck possession in the offensive zone.
Goalie Scott Darling earned his second win of the season, robbing ageless Jaromir Jagr of a goal in the third period and making other sparking stops among his 25 saves as the Canes limited the Flames to 26 shots.
Jeff Skinner and Justin Williams scored – Williams’ first goal in his return to Carolina was the winner – and the Canes minimized the Flames’ offensive chances until the final minutes.
“There are a lot of good things we can build on from this game,” Peters said. “We can be stifling when we play the right way.”
Skinner scored his third of the season on a bullet of a shot in the second period, and Williams ripped a top-shelf shot on the power play in the third off a Skinner pass as the Canes took a 2-0 lead.
The Flames scored with 3:28 left in regulation on Sean Monahan’s shot from the slot through traffic. Calgary pulled goalie Mike Smith for a sixth attacker in the final minutes, but the Canes wouldn’t allow a tying goal, as Brett Pesce and Elias Lindholm blocked shots.
The Canes helped Darling with some strong positional play and active stick work in the defensive zone, and defenseman Haydn Fleury stopped a second-period shot with Darling caught out of position. Darling’s stop on Jagr, with 12:13 left in the third, had Jagr looking to the rafters in frustration.
“He was outstanding,” Peters said. “He’s only going to get better as he gets used to the communication with our D and the way we play and the way we defend.”
Defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, activated off injured reserve Thursday after missing three games with a concussion, returned and partnered with Fleury.
Peters made a lineup and line change, sitting rookie Martin Necas putting Brock McGinn on a line with Skinner and Derek Ryan.
All four lines were active Thursday as the fourth line centered by Marcus Kruger, with Joakim Nordstrom and Josh Jooris on the wings, kept the Flames hemmed into their zone at times.
Smith was the Flames starter in net, making former Canes goalie Eddie Lack the backup.
The road trip ends Saturday in Dallas with a game against the Stars.