While the smell of chicken-fried bacon — yes, that's right ... chicken-fried bacon — wafts through the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, the Carolina Hurricanes have hit the road for their annual escape from the 11 days of bustle that comes to western Raleigh each October.
This year's four-game trip comes with the Hurricanes struggling. After getting shutout by the Devils in the first game of their roadie, Carolina had totaled just five points in seven games on the season and is tied with Toronto for the second-fewest goals per game in the NHL at 2.0 per game. Of those 14 goals, half were scored in the Canes' 7-2 win over Florida on Oct. 9, meaning they've scored just seven in their other six games — an average of 1.17 per game.
But the next three games away from the RBC Center afford the Hurricanes — who are 2-4-1 on the season — an opportunity to get away from their struggles and right the ship. And since the lockout, the Canes have used their annual road trip during the State Fair to do just that.
Since the 2005-06 season, Carolina has a 12-5-6 record on their State Fair vacation, compared to a combined 5-4-2 combined start in those four campaigns. Here is how the team has performed before and during the string of away games.
Season: Record To Start Season (Pts. of Possible Pts.; % earned); Record During State Fair Road Trip (Pts.)
2005-06: 2-2-0 (4 of 8 possible; 50% earned); 2-0-1 (5 of 6; 83%)
2006-07: 0-1-1 (1 of 4; 25%); 4-3-1 (9 of 16; 56.3%)
2007-08: 1-0-1 (3 of 4; 75%); 3-1-2 (8 of 12; 66.7%)
2008-09: 2-1-0 (4 of 6; 66.7%); 3-1-2 (8 of 12; 66.7%)
2009-10: 2-4-1 (5 of 14; 35.7%); 0-1-0 (0 of 2; 0%, three games remain)
Total: 7-8-3 (17 of 36; 47.2%); 12-6-6 (30 of 48; 62.5%)
Clearly the team has fared (faired?) well during their escape from the RBC Center. Factored over an 82-game schedule, the team projects to just 77.4 points given their pre-State Fair production, compared to 102.5 they would accumulate based on the 62.5 percent point rate they've managed on their annual trip.
But this year is different from the other post-lockout road trips in that the Canes have dug themselves a deeper hole and have less of a trip to make it up. The seven games prior to the fair are the most since the lockout, while the four-game road trip is the shortest since the team had just three games in a row on the road in 2005-06. On top of that, Carolina already dropped the opener of their trip — the previously mentioned 2-0 blanking by the Devils — and are battling injuries up and down their lineup, the most significant being Eric Staal's apparent groin/lower body injury.
The good news? The Canes next three opponents are far from world-beaters. On Wednesday the Canes play the Islanders, one of two teams in the league (Toronto is the other) without a win (0-3-3). Two days later they are in Colorado to face the surprising Avs, who are 6-1-1 despite being the consensus pick to be the Western Conference's doormat this year. Finally, the 1-6-0 Wild will host the Hurricanes Saturday.
Records — both past and present — don't tell the whole story of Carolina's next three opponents.
For the first time in a long time, the Islanders have something to be excited about: John Tavares. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 Entry Draft has been even better than expected, proving wrong the skeptics who thought his average skating would keep him from being the prolific scorer he was in the OHL. With seven points (three goals, four assists) in six games, Tavares has delivered. Unfortunately, he can only play so much, and of the Isles' 13 goals, Tavares has factored in on seven of them. Also benefiting the Canes? They have dominated New York since the lockout, going 11-4-1, including taking all eight possible points last year.
Like the Isles, the Avalanche are playing nothing-to-lose hockey — only they're not losing. New coach Joe Sacco has benefited from a couple young contributors, including third overall pick Matt Duchene. But the biggest addition is new No. 1 goalie Craig Anderson. The Canes are familiar with Anderson, who played in the Southeast with the Panthers the past three seasons before getting a shot to be the top goalie on a rebuilding team. Anderson is best remembered for stifling Carolina in the final game of the 2007-08 season, stopping 26 of 28 shots in relief of an injured Tomas Vokoun to beat the Hurricanes and deny them a playoff berth.
Carolina is 1-2 against Colorado the past three seasons, but this Avalanche team is vastly different from any of those squads: no Joe Sakic, no Ryan Smyth. Despite the Avs' sterling record, the Canes need to look at the game as one they should win, seeing that they hold a talent edge in net, scoring firepower and defense.
The Wild, as I expected prior to the season, are struggling through their transition from Jacques Lemaire's trap system to Todd Richards' more up-tempo style. Minnesota has had only one home game in their first seven outings, and it's their only victory. Like the Islanders, the Wild have struggled to find second-tier scoring, getting five of their 15 goals from Andrew Brunette. And then there's the baffling struggles of one-time emerging star Brent Burns. Burns, who was an offensive weapon from the blueline two seasons ago, has regressed to troubling levels, managing just one assist so far and a dreadful minus-9 — tied for the worst in the league with the Islanders' Brendan Witt. Carolina is 1-2 against the Wild since the lockout.
After Saturday's game against Minnesota, the Canes get three days off before hosting the St. Louis Blues back at the RBC Center. At that time we'll know a lot more about the the 2009-10 Carolina Hurricanes. Can they manage five or six points and get their record at or close to .500? Will the team's scoring struggles continue, leaving Cam Ward — who has been one of the few bright spots early in the season — on his own to try and pull the Hurricanes out of their troubling tailspin? Or are more losses on the horizon — and if so, will Jim Rutherford begin to explore making roster changes by recalling the young guns from Albany or swinging a deal?
It may still be too early to call a stretch of games "pivotal," but the next three will go a long way in determining the direction of the Hurricanes.