RALEIGH, N.C. – Back home after a cross-country trip, the Carolina Hurricanes want to keep playing like they’re on the road.
That’s a mentality that served them well during a critical chunk of the schedule in which they played 85-plus minutes of clutch hockey to remain in the playoff chase.
A collapse seemed understandable, if not inevitable, during their recent three-game West Coast trip. They gave away a point at struggling Vancouver in the first game, their injured captain was sent home early during the trip, their lone all-star was out with an injury and they were down in the third period against some of the NHL’s best teams.
Instead, they regrouped after the loss to the Canucks to claim a confidence-building shootout win over San Jose, and followed that with an unlikely rout of Phoenix to claim four crucial points.
And more importantly, they might have saved their season – at least, as long as they don’t get caught up in their recent accomplishments.
“You can’t think that when you come home, everything is going to come easily,” forward Tuomo Ruutu said after practice Tuesday. “On the road, you almost have to work extra hard. But when you come home for the first game, you’ve got to do the same thing and work as hard as you do on the road.”
Once written off after a five-game slide in mid-January, Carolina (27-22-5) has won six of eight to move back into the thick of the post-season chase. The Hurricanes began Wednesday ninth in the Eastern Conference with 59 points, one behind Southeast Division rival Florida – which visits Raleigh on Thursday.
“Every point is huge at this stage of the season,” goalie Cam Ward said. “It’s definitely crunch time for us, and all you have to do to remind yourself is to take a look at those standings and see how tight of a race it is. Every game is huge, and it’s important that we continue what we’ve been doing these past couple games on the road and play well at home.”
They wouldn’t be in this position had they not rallied from a near-certain defeat at San Jose, sending the Western Conference-leading Sharks to their first back-to-back home losses of the season. Ray Whitney tied it at 3-3 midway through the third, Sergei Samsonov scored the winner in the shootout and backup goalie Michael Leighton stopped 37 shots in his first significant action in weeks.
Then, their punchless power-play unit – which is scoring at a 16.9 per cent rate – finally clicked into gear. It produced a season-high four goals during a 7-2 victory over Phoenix in which the players’ faith in new coach Paul Maurice’s disciplined system was rewarded.
“We were patient in both of the games. We just kept playing hard and using the system,” Ruutu said. “That’s why we got opportunities to score goals, and we buried those chances. That was a big thing. In the Phoenix game, if you have power plays and you don’t score on the first couple of power plays, you might get frustrated. But we kept doing the same things, and that’s why we scored.”
They also have gotten healthier. Captain Rod Brind’Amour, who returned to Raleigh following Carolina’s 4-3 loss at Vancouver to nurse a groin injury, was back on the ice practising Tuesday and so was defenceman Dennis Seidenberg, who remains on injured reserve with a hurt groin. All-star Eric Staal, who missed the end of the San Jose win with a lower-body injury, returned to face the Coyotes.
And they bolstered their depth, weaving forward Jussi Jokinen into the top lines after he was acquired from Tampa Bay over the weekend for two backup players and a draft pick.
Now comes the tough part: Keeping that momentum going.
“You can learn from it a lot, or you can use it the other way,” Ruutu said. “Hopefully, we can use it as a positive thing and keep playing the way we’ve been playing the past couple of games. … You can’t be satisfied with two wins. You have to win some games.”