Canes Need to Gain Strength Before Road Trip

Will a heavy dose of checks like this one by Justin Faulk spark the Canes? (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Three up, and three down. If the Carolina Hurricanes had any hopes of a fast and focused start to this new season – like any fresh-faced, clean-slate squad should when the first puck of the year drops – plans have gone awry in a hurry. They opened the year with back to back games against their most talented division foes and left with only one point in their pocket.

After being dominated by Tampa Bay on Friday’s Opening Night in Raleigh, especially during the last two periods, to a tune of 5-1, the Canes needed a last-second empty-net surge to earn an OT point Saturday before being dismissed by a Mike Green power play goal in Washington. A Columbus Day matinee in New Jersey ended in a loss, as well, as a solid second period effort was wasted and the Devils won 4-2.

Carolina’s label as an enigma in the league has not been lifted by any of their performances so far. It’s far too early to write them off and far too difficult to be genuinely excited. Can fans count on the team gaining focus and strength as they barrel full-speed into the rest of the league, or is this team going to harmlessly turn away from contention and enter the “there’s always next year” doldrums?

The Hurricanes finished last season just two points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot, harbor a strong home-ice advantage, maintain a stable environment for player development that yields results (Calder Cup winner Jeff Skinner, for example), and feature All-Stars at key positions – first-liners at center (Eric Staal), winger (Skinner), and goalie (Cam Ward). Super.

Everyone’s attitude seems to be in the right place. In an interview yesterday on Versus in preparation for tonight’s nationally-televised game versus the Bruins, Skinner noted that the locker room has expectations to succeed and make the playoffs. Right on.

The front office has built a roster mixing of playoff-savvy veterans (including Stanley Cup champ Tomas Kaberle on the blue line), young skill players with potential (Anthony Stewart), and home-grown fan-favorites (including rookie Zac Dalpe). There’s someone for everyone. Score.

But why, after typing all of that, do I feel so uninspired? I’m not questioning the motivation of any single player, the coach or the GM. For me, the whole situation sounds like an affordable deal on a perfectly acceptable home in the suburbs. Solid construction, decent schools, a master suite with two sinks. It’s all so… nice. Just like every other freaking house around it.

I need a bright red kitchen or a bowling alley in the basement here, folks. Love it or hate it, something under that roof that sparks an emotional response. There’s a fire pit in the living room? Awesome. Let’s try it out and see just how good or bad it can be. Who wants s’mores?

I know part of the challenge here is that I’m not a native Carolinian (or a hanger-on from the team’s days in Hartford, if anyone bothered to stick on with the franchise when it moved south). But I’m not bashing this team, either. I want good hockey around me… hockey that inspires people to learn the game and love it. Things aren’t clicking for 60 minutes yet, and the Hurricanes need to use tonight’s one-game homestead to set things right before a two-week road trip with stops in Buffalo, Boston, St. Louis, and Winnipeg before returning home to face Ottawa 10/25.

Eric Staal can supply some scoring, but Carolina needs to show depth and fire top-to-bottom. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)This team’s looked sluggish at points in all three games, lacking speed and angles to control rushes from the wing and the discipline to work the puck out of the defensive zone without taking penalties. Carolina has surrendered at least one power play goal in each of the first three games and is only 2-14 during their own man-advantage situations.

If you’re a team lacking extraordinary depth and/or star power, you have to rely on your special teams to win on the margins. Putting yourself down a player or two versus top-flight teams is going to catch up with you eventually – or in this season’s case, immediately – and it puts more strain on your even-strength and power-play units. You’re further limiting the scoring chances of more dynamic players or placing more strain on the minutes played by your reliable ones. Picking your poison means you’ll probably suffer negative results eventually.

The Hurricanes need to start leveraging what works for them – a mix of systematic determination, veteran savvy, and relentless energy – and tilt the ice and scoring opportunities back in their favor. They need to dictate pace and angles with the forecheck, and let the opposition know the game’s going to be physical without taking stupid penalties. Every fan knows what it feels like to watch a team that needs to do something like this, and I suspect the players’ perspectives from the bench are even more frustrating.

A performance like Staal’s two goal night in Washington can help trigger a turnaround like this, but I suspect a top-to-bottom four-line effort will make the biggest impact on this team, its fans, and this season. One night in Raleigh does not a season make, but this year’s going to be tough if this Canes squad can’t make a stand on home ice and prove to themselves, and the league, that they have what it takes to compete. Right now.

What say you, Caniacs?

Justin Faulk photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images
Eric Staal AP Photo/Nick Wass