Hurricanes’ road trip provides opportunity

Following Tuesday’s game in Pittsburgh, Carolina needs to take advantage of four winnable games

The Carolina Hurricanes are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, and their five-game road trip will be pivotal to their chances. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press via AP)

RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes were 11-12-2 away from PNC Arena heading into Tuesday night’s game in Pittsburgh, the first of a season-long five-game road trip that will set the stage for this month’s NHL trade deadline and the team’s playoff chances.

After struggling on extended road trips earlier in the season, going 1-2-0, 0-3-1 and 1-2-0 in the campaign’s first two months on sojourns of three games or more, the Hurricanes have had back-to-back successful roadies.

From Jan. 6-10, Carolina won two of three against Ottawa, the Islanders and Tampa Bay, losing only to the NHL’s top team, and then got five of six points on last month’s trip through western Canada, sandwiching an overtime loss to the Flames around wins in Edmonton and Vancouver.

The team’s record since a New Year’s Eve home win over the Flyers is 10-4-1, and that included a 5-2-1 record outside of Raleigh. So this five-game swing through Eastern Conference arenas will be pivotal in determining the direction — both in the standings and with the roster — of the Hurricanes.

The toughest opponent on the trip was up first with Tuesday’s visit to the revamped Penguins. From there, however, the Hurricanes get four of the seven other teams currently outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Here’s a look at those four games and what to expect.

Buffalo Sabres, Feb. 7

This will be the front half of a back-to-back for the Hurricanes, but it looks like Carolina is catching the Sabres at the right time. Once the Cinderella darlings of the Eastern Conference, Buffalo has fallen on hard times.

The Sabres were 4-9-1 since Christmas heading into Tuesday’s home game against Minnesota, including a 4-3 loss to the Hurricanes in Raleigh back on Jan. 11. But Buffalo has at least been decent at home, going 5-5-2 since December.

The biggest issue has been the goaltending, which has fallen off a cliff. Carter Hutton was 12-7-1 in October and November, but he’s just 3-7-1 since, and his save percentage in 2019 is .852 and he is allowing close to 4½ goals allowed a game. Yech.

Linus Ullmark hasn’t been much better. The Swede is 2-4 in eight appearances in January and February, allowing 3.21 goals with an .896 save percentage. Throw in that Jeff Skinner scored once in seven games before Tuesday, and nothing is going right in Buffalo.

New York Rangers, Feb. 8

Madison Square Garden is a house of horrors for the Hurricanes, with the Rangers beating Carolina 16 straight times in the Big Apple. The Canes’ last win at MSG was Jan. 5, 2011, and the streak is New York’s longest against one team in franchise history.

So that’s decidedly not good.

The Hurricanes, however, are a respectable 5-3-1 on the back end of back-to-backs, though their road record in those games is 2-3-0. The Rangers already have a 6-2 win at home over the Hurricanes under their belt, but reality has set in that the Blueshirts will be deadline sellers.

There’d be no better time for the Hurricanes to snap their drought in NYC, and after winning five of seven to close out January, the Rangers have lost home games to Tampa Bay and in overtime to the Kings.

New Jersey Devils, Feb. 10

The Devils are in a race with Ottawa and Detroit to be the Eastern Conference’s worst team, but they have been good at home, with a 13-7-4 record. Carolina is 1-1 against New Jersey this season, winning at home but suffering a 2-0 shutout at Prudential Center on Dec. 29.

The shutout, however, was by MacKenzie Blackwood, who has since been reassigned to the AHL. Carolina will probably be hoping Cory Schneider — who hasn’t won an NHL regular season game since Dec. 27, 2017, going 0-15-3 — will start, especially since Keith Kinkaid is 7-2 with a .942 save percentage and 1.87 goals-against average against the Hurricanes in his career.

The Devils are just 5-8-0 since the calendar flipped, and they will be playing an afternoon game for the second straight day — the Wild visit for a 1 p.m. game on Feb. 9 — when they line up with the Hurricanes.

Ottawa Senators, Feb. 12

The Matt Duchene and Mark Stone speculation will likely be at a fever pitch come this game. Carolina has split two games against the Senators this season, winning in Ottawa and losing at home.

Ottawa has lost four straight heading into Wednesday’s game at Toronto, and the game against the Hurricanes will be the last at home before the Senators hit the road for four straight.

Through Monday’s games, the Senators were allowing a league-worst 3.73 goals a game, and their 76.4 percent penalty killing rate was tied for fourth-worst in the league — perhaps a cure for what ails Carolina’s struggling power play. Ottawa also allows an NHL worst 36.4 shots per game, while the Hurricanes’ 35.7 shots on goal per game pace the league.