It might have been the quietest over-.500 road trip in NHL history.
At no single point during the Carolina Hurricanes' recent State Fair-enforced sojourn did they give off an unmistakable air of this young team finally turning the corner, putting it all together to prepare for a charge up the standings and threatening a playoff spot. But if you woke up this morning and looked at the results over the past two weeks, lo and behold, they aren't nearly the embarrassment to the league that so many had written them off as after three straight losses to start the season.
The Canes did more than tread water on their cross-country trip. It's ten games into the season and they're a more than respectable 4-6, three points out of a playoff spot and certainly far from hopeless, especially considering all but two games have been played on the road, one of which was the franchise's first-ever win in Denver dating back to 1996.
Beyond that, though, there are some signs that the emphasis on player development over the past couple of years has borne fruit. Brock McGinn joined the team to begin the road trip and all he did was score the fastest first career goal in the NHL since Alexander Mogilny. He bookended it with a goal late in the first period in Brooklyn that kickstarted the Canes to their first comeback win of the season last night.
Even more remarkable is the sudden emergence of Brett Pesce, rising from healthy scratch to top-four defenseman by the end of the trip. Pesce, who had plenty of friends and family in the stands at Barclays Center last night, hasn't looked out of place at all, playing more than 20 minutes last night. Pesce's impressive showing has likely earned him a semi-permanent stay in Raleigh, but when he returns to Charlotte he will be playing with worlds of well-deserved confidence.
Pesce is playing off the same kind of adrenaline rush that propelled Noah Hanifin to his solid start to the season. Hanifin ran out of gas a bit late in the road trip, earning him a spot in the press box on Tuesday in Detroit and keeping his ice time down a bit against the Islanders, but that's to be expected. Sometimes it's hard to remember that Hanifin is just 18 years old, and in any case he's one of just three 2015 draftees guaranteed to stay on an NHL roster past the ten-game trigger to activate the first year of an entry-level deal. (Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are locks, plus Daniel Sprong is at seven games and looks likely to hang around. Not bad company.) He'll be fine, even if he has a lot of learning still to do.
After a rocky start that included an early hook in San Jose, Eddie Lack looked worlds more composed last night and, while the starter's crease is still mostly Cam Ward's to lose at this point, Lack seems to be finding his footing. Also shaking off the early-season doldrums is Jordan Staal, whose two assists last night were both things of beauty and were his first two points of the season. Every player is prone to slumps at times, and it's entirely possible that Staal's just happened to coincide with the start of the season when it's the most noticeable.
Also noticeable? The fact that Ron Hainsey - Ron Hainsey!! - has scored two straight game-winning goals. You know things are going well when a defenseman who's scored eight goals over three seasons with the Hurricanes is suddenly turning into the second coming of Niclas Wallin.
An early-season road trip with a team which, according to NHL Numbers, is the third-youngest in the league had the potential to force the Canes to be chasing from behind the rest of the season. Make no mistake, they will still be doing plenty of chasing, but they more than held their own and have proven that they will be a tough out for other teams the rest of the year.
Now comes a November in which the Canes play nine at home against just four on the road. There's no better way to build on the momentum from a successful road trip than by holding serve at home. By Thanksgiving, we should have a good idea about how this trip fits into the broader narrative of the season. But as the Canes return home tonight, they deserve a pat on the back. The job isn't done, but it's a win for the team simply to come back to Raleigh with meaningful hockey still left to be played.