If the Carolina Hurricanes go on to make the playoffs this spring, we’ll look back at their recently concluded road trip as one of the major turning points of the season.
Finishing a six-game road swing with a 4-1-1 record — the most successful sojourn for the franchise since relocating from Hartford — the Canes have propelled themselves up the NHL standings and into the top spot in the SE Division. Currently the Eastern Conference’s third seed, Kirk Muller’s club has won eight of its last 11 contests, and is starting to look like the team Jim Rutherford envisioned this summer after bringing in the likes of Jordan Staal and Alex Semin.
The majority of hockey players will tell you that they would prefer to play in front of their own fans, but a lengthy excursion — especially early in the season, like this one — can really bring a group of athletes together.
“Obviously the road trip was huge. We kind of found our team identity” said Jussi Jokinen, who scored for the second time in two games against the Leafs. “As a team you have to find different ways to win a game.”
While home-ice advantage is always coveted, there is no way to replicate the kind of bonding that takes place when the team is on the road. And given the unique circumstances of this abbreviated campaign — one that had a very short training camp and no preseason — having the chance to bond was vital for the Canes.
“We missed that part of the bonding during training camp, spending time together at the rink” Muller said. “At the beginning we had like seven new guys and when that happens they’re trying to get the system down but just even getting to know the players.”
Following 12 days away from Raleigh, Carolina returned to PNC Arena on Thursday and picked up right where it left off, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs at home by the score of 3-1.
Often times teams will fall flat in their first game back from a long stint away from home ice, and the Canes were conscious of that. Rather than struggle, they were flying out of the gate against the Leafs and skated at an up-tempo style for virtually the entire 60 minutes of play.
Carolina out-shot Toronto 33-23, and had it not been for the stellar goaltending of backup Ben Scrivens, the score could have easily been far more lopsided.
Given the way the Canes performed over the last few weeks — at and away from PNC Arena — it’s become clear that effort will not be an issue for this squad. Unlike the previous regime, the current coaching staff has done a fantastic job motivating the players to bring a strong work ethic to the table day in and day out.
“That’s a common trend (to struggle after a long road trip). The coaches did a really good job of addressing that in our meetings,” said Canes goalie Dan Ellis, who earned his third win of the season on Thursday. “They constantly made us aware that ‘Guys, it’s almost like an extra road game. Let’s approach it with the mentality you want to finish the road trip strong, even though you’re at home.’ That’s what we did — we gave a good push and got a good win against a hot team.”
Said Muller: “This was the game that probably scared us the most. You come off that road trip and sometimes the guys drop the guards and have a bit of a lull, but I give our leaders credit. It’s all about the players. They had the guys ready to go from the start.”
After just one match-up back home, the Hurricanes will pack their bags once more as they travel to Montreal to face the Canadiens on Monday. They will return to North Carolina to face the Winnipeg Jets next Thursday.
Andrew Hirsh is a credentialed NHL writer based in North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @andrewhirsh or email him at email@example.com.