'Canes trip off to good start

'Canes trip off to good start

Published Dec. 15, 2010 8:52 a.m. ET

By Andrew Jones
December 15, 2010

For a team that has won consecutive games just twice this season, the Carolina Hurricanes gladly put three points in their back pockets from a pair of road games this past weekend.

Carolina had mastered playing "consistently inconsistent" hockey, as veteran Erik Cole said a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps some of that has been due to the team never really having much time to settle into a comfortable routine since a trip to Russia and Finland to close the exhibition season and open the 82-game regular campaign spun them like a top.

The team didn't play their home opener until Oct. 27, and the quirkiness of their schedule has seen them play on consecutive nights eight times already. So, Carolina's five-day layoff a week ago was put to good use, as the Canes lost 2-1 in a shootout at Dallas last Friday, and the next evening snagged a 2-1 shootout victory at St. Louis.

These were gut-check games for Carolina. They could have lost both in regulation, and maybe if played a week earlier, they would have. But finally able to take some serious deep breaths, and welcoming a few tweaks, the Hurricanes were in the proper frame of mind to battle through both games and come away with three well-earned points.

"I think the effort has been really good," Coach Paul Maurice said Tuesday. "This is a good group. We've changed out tact a little bit here to give ourselves a chance to have a little bit more energy in the games and you saw it in our last two. I like the foundation that's being set here with these guys. It's a good young team, and they're learning how to work. The next step is to learn how to get on a roll."

Carolina is currently tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference with 28 points, but with 35 percent of their remaining schedule against Southeast Division foes, beginning Wednesday at Florida, opportunities to climb quickly are in abundance.

The Panthers, with 26 points, are the only team nestled below Carolina in the division, and on Thursday, the Canes visit Atlanta, which is second in the division with 37 points (17-11-3). The Hurricanes know how games versus division foes are important, but this club is still trying to find itself, so it can't get too caught up in the standings.

But Maurice likes the direction his young club is headed, and that they will be ready for the challenge of their ninth set of back-to-back games in just 30 games overall. They will do this 21 times this season.

"I'd like to think we've been well schooled in the grinding road game by now, and give ourselves a good chance to play well there (Florida)," Maurice said. "And Atlanta has added a lot of pieces and really changed their look, starting with their goaltender on out, and the confidence is there."

The Canes are 7-5-4 in back-to-backs, so they are already growing up and should only get better handling the grind as the season grows. With Cam Ward in goal, Carolina's chances at improving that mark are pretty strong. Ward stopped 66 shots in the games in Dallas and St. Louis over the weekend, and has been playing extremely well in the net for a few weeks.

Furthermore, Carolina, which ranked 29th in penalty kills on Nov. 19, has now killed off 26 of the last 28 short-handed situations it's faced. On the flip side, however, the Hurricanes have failed to score in their last 20 power plays.

The Canes appear on the same page, and as they gain more comfort playing with each other and eventually settle on an approach, which may have already happened, the toughness gained from the last 10 weeks should pay off in March and April. Maurice certainly has a positive view of the immediate future.

"I like the way we've played on the road here a little bit," he said. "We're pretty healthy, so, I feel good."