Jordan Staal had it right afterward: “Everyone worries about lines and who’s going to play with who, and then by Game 2 it changes.” Still, Friday night’s preseason game, the Carolina Hurricanes’ third, and first at home, had the feel of something more than a mere exhibition.
With the notable absence of Cam Ward, Noah Hanifin, Joakim Nordstrom and Jaccob Slavin, this was as close to a midseason lineup as seen in a preseason game. The Hurricanes fired most of their bullets in one of only two home preseason games, a 2-1 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning salvaged by a Jeff Skinner power-play goal with 65 seconds left in regulation.
Elias Lindholm centered Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, a soft opening at home for the Finns and an audition for the Swede at center, where he was drafted to play despite spending most of his career so far on the wing. Victor Rask centered Skinner and Lee Stempniak, which if Lindholm can stick in the middle, has the feel of another potential opening-night combo. And Staal had Brock McGinn and Phillip Di Giuseppe on his wings, young understudies for longtime Staal linemates Andrej Nestrasil and Nordstrom.
Raffi Torres was the center of attention on a fourth line centered by Nestrasil, but his preseason debut with the Hurricanes was blessedly incident-free, even if he was taking a lineup spot from a prospect who might have benefited from the experience.
The defense was a pairing short, but then again, that’s not an uncommon state of affairs for the Hurricanes at any time, and there’s a pretty good chance the Hurricanes’ sixth defenseman on opening night is playing somewhere else right now and won’t make it through waivers. All told, it was probably a stronger lineup than the Hurricanes iced at times during the past two seasons – and against a much younger Tampa Bay lineup lacking most of the Lightning’s stars.
Given all that, the fact it took almost all of two slow, sloppy periods for the Hurricanes to get into gear after giving up a quick opening goal by Tyler Johnson was as disappointing as it was encouraging to see them come to life in the final minute of the second and into the third, Skinner finally breaking through with the Hurricanes on the power play and their net empty for an extra attacker.
The Hurricanes’ preseason opener was one of only two actual home games they’ll play before starting the regular season, and their home opener is a month away thanks to the six-game road trip that starts the season. So anyone who missed the Finns on Friday has only one home preview opportunity left, next Friday. After that, the Hurricanes spend the first three weeks on the road – although, if you must go to Winnipeg, October’s probably the best time to do it.
From here, it’s off to Minnesota and Marquette, Mich., and Ron Francis’ hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. (The Hurricanes will technically be the home team in the Soo.) The busy week ends at home against the Washington Capitals as the Hurricanes play four games in six days and five in eight. This is not atypical for the Hurricanes, who tend to avoid playing preseason home games for financial reasons.
This is the fifth straight season the Hurricanes will play more preseason games on the road than at home; they haven’t made the playoffs in that time, and although it’s hard to pin too much blame on the preseason schedule, they haven’t exactly sprinted out of the gate in those years, either. That played into Friday’s lineup, too.
“Everyone’s worried about the start,” said assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour, deputized in Bill Peters’ final day of Team Canada absence. “We’ve got to get these guys up to speed as fast as we can.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock