Carolina started its season with two big come-from-behind victories against division foes, leaving fans enamored with the exhilarating play, never-say-die attidude and — most of all — four points.
There's no denying that there are many pleasing things we can take away from this first weekend of Hurricanes hockey. The play of defensemen Joni Pitkanen, Frank Kaberle and Tim Gleason has been encouraging. Captain Rod Brind'Amour may still have a little rust on his fender, but that hasn't kept him from scoring clutch goals in each game while winning nearly 57 percent of his faceoffs. Matt Cullen, whose health has been questioned throughout the offseason and preseason, parlayed his empty-netter from the opener into another goal Saturday, and has looked good doing it. Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu and Ray Whitney have all shown flashes of being unstoppable in the offensive zone. And, maybe most importantly, Cam Ward and Michael Leighton each have a win under their belts in steady, if unspectacular, performances.
Comeback wins. Solid defensive play. Scoring from every line of forwards. Two goalies that can win on any given night.
Yup, people are already comparing this incarnation of the Carolina Hurricanes to the one that won it all in the 2005-06 season. You see, not only do players get a taste of the Stanley Cup and want it even more. So do fans. And diehard Caniacs are gobbling up these first two triumphs of the season.
It's been exciting, that's for sure, but the there were some fundamental flaws in the play of each of their opponents. In the opener, the Hurricanes benefited from a shaky Tomas Vokoun, who seemed just as likely to bobble a puck or leave a juicy rebound as he was to make a big save. The Tampa Bay defense is, to put it lightly, a disaster. Not a Sandis-Ozolinsh-turning-the-puck-over-for-an-opponent-breakaway-type disaster, but rather a the-puck-is-never-getting-out-of-their-end disaster.
That's not to take away from what Carolina accomplished in their two wins. But despite what many main-stream media types will tell you, the Panthers and Lightning will be very hard-pressed to even compete for a playoff spot, forget about earn one. The Canes' intensity, effort and will was there, the type of effort we all remember from 2005-06. What hasn't been there yet, however, is a good opponent.
That changes Monday night.
The defending champion Red Wings will not go up two or three goals early and then roll over at the first sign of a comeback. Nicklas Lidstrom alone has the ability to score an extra goal to pad the lead, or keep his opponents out of his own end for long stretches. Much like the Ottawa game in 2005 — when the Canes knocked off the then-unbeaten Senators, thus exposing a chink in the Sens' armor and legitimizing Carolina as a force to be reckoned with — Monday's game will serve as a big early season litmus test.
Through two games, there have been lots of tasty ingredients. Even the end result has been delicious. But this is not a recipe for success over an 82-game season, and everyone — from Jim Rutherford to Peter Laviolette to the players to the fans — knows that. It's time for the Hurricanes to stop whipping up 20 minutes of fast food and work on a 60-minute, three-course meal. That's easier said than done. But so is beating the defending champions.