Before the season began, an optimist could have envisioned the Carolina Hurricanes’ season-opening six-game road trip as an opportunity for the revamped and youthful roster to develop chemistry on the road and work out kinks before returning to the expectant home crowds of Raleigh.
That utopian interpretation has not worked out.
Three winnable games and zero actual wins into 2016-17, the Hurricanes’ inexperience has been thrust to the ugly forefront, turning the road trip into an ever-increasing uphill climb against momentum, hostile crowds and the team’s own mental blocks.
There’s no denying the accuracy of the first part: the Hurricanes are quite inexperienced. Six of the 19 players in the lineup on Tuesday against Edmonton joined the team over the summer, and an additional four are barely removed from rookie status.
That relatively lack of intra-squad familiarity, exacerbated by the absence of coach Bill Peters for the first half of training camp, has equated to a mix-and-match first week in terms of personnel moves — after all, three players on the roster (Martin Frk, Jakub Nakladal and Klas Dahlbeck) didn’t even join the Hurricanes until after the preseason.
So when Winnipeg cut the lead to 4-2 last Friday and a rowdy MTS Centre crowd re-entered the equation, the Hurricanes did what an inexperienced, discombobulated team does: they panicked.
They melted in the loud atmosphere, wilted under the Jets’ offensive pressure, lost track of the structure that they’d had just weeks (or, for some players, days) to practice.
The game wasn’t altogether a poor performance, but the defeat was nonetheless heartbreaking — as only the third time in NHL history that a team has blown a three-goal to lose in their season opener.
So the Hurricanes kept panicking. And, due to the unfortunate State Fair situation creating its annual October scheduling conflict, they had nowhere to hide.
They were forced to seek a bounce-back win in Vancouver, a city in which the franchise hasn’t won in 17 years, instead of the comfortable confines of Raleigh. They earned another three-goal lead, then lost their composure again when the slightest bit of momentum shifted in the Canucks’ favor, and another painful story followed.
Then they were forced to try to end the cursed run in Alberta, a province in which the team has won just once in its last 12 visits, instead of at PNC Arena, where the team won 19 times last season alone.
For two periods in Edmonton, the Hurricanes played like backpackers stuck on a foreign mountain, lacking the comfort level and assertiveness to control a game in which, on paper, they had a talent advantage. It took the third-period heroics of Lee Stempniak — a man far less fazed by adversity than his teammates after 11 years of jumping from city to city — to turn the game around, and it still proved too late to salvage.
The Hurricanes now stand at 0-1-2 officially but 0-3 in its players’ heads, adjacent to bad memories of the 0-6-2 start two years ago (for the surprisingly few players left from that 2014-15 season).
And they still have nowhere to hide.
Up next is Calgary, where the Hurricanes fell in listless fashion, 4-1, last season. After that comes Philadelphia, where they twice lost devastatingly in overtime last season. Then Detroit. And then, only then, home.
The landslide the team now finds itself in has the potential to transform a decent start to the season — one that should have led to two, if not three, wins already for any normal team — into a six-consecutive-loss disaster.
That scenario would put the Hurricanes far behind the eight ball before they even play a minute in North Carolina, delivering collateral damage to the already fragile fanbase and the selling pitch to future additions to Ron Francis’s rebuilding project as well as to goal No. 1: the playoffs.
The Hurricanes’ road trip, currently only halfway complete, has quickly shifted from a blessing in disguise to an inescapable and psychologically disastrous gauntlet.