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'Canes Cool Bars at the Brier Creek Ale House Tonight!
You knew it was coming sooner or later.
After an opening month to the season that saw the ‘Canes sweep through eastern Canada, take a trip to Pennsylvania and host the Vancouver Canucks for the first time in five years, it’s finally time for an extended run against Southeast Division opponents.
Sure, playing 12 out of the next 14 games against Atlanta, Florida, Tampa Bay and Washington can get a little tedious at times, but the way the Hurricanes have been playing to start this season, it should be a good opportunity to extend their current six-point lead in the division.
“We see these teams enough – eight times a year is a little bit much for me – but these are important games for us,” said defenseman Bret Hedican. “We’re going to have to be playing the same type of hockey that we started the season with.”
Other than a run of eight straight games to end the season, this is by far the most division-heavy portion of the Hurricanes schedule. As the season’s opening month proved, the schedule makers seem to have done a better job of spreading things around a little bit more than in the last two seasons of the current format.
“I can’t believe we’re this far in and we’ve only played Washington,” said Peter Laviolette, referring the only divisional game they have played thus far, a 2-0 road loss. “Now you look at the schedule, and I think every game in November is divisional, except a couple against Philly. We’re smack dab in the middle of it now, and [winning] your division gets you at least one of the top three seeds, so they’re important games.”
The Southeast should have a somewhat different look to it this season. Last year’s winners, the Atlanta Thrashers, have fired Coach Bob Hartley and are currently dead last in the entire conference. Florida and Washington made significant improvements over the off-season, which led some to predict they would win it this year, but both have struggled so far. Tampa Bay, largely unchanged, is in second place behind the Hurricanes, with two fewer games played.
Hedican said he absolutely expects the divisonal games to be more difficult this year.
“We’ve got a tough division,” he said. “I don’t care who you talk to about it, but you’ve got to come every night in order to win these games. We can’t take any of these games for granted, and we know that in order to win any of these Southeast Division games you’ve got to work.”
The ‘Canes start things off against Florida on a Halloween night road match-up. Following that game, the Panthers will be in Raleigh on Saturday night for the back end of the home-and-home series. The two teams will play each other twice more in November, once at each location.
“We had some great games with them last year,” said Erik Cole, who had three assists in his return from injury last Saturday night. “They work hard all over the ice every time they step on. They’ve made some changes to improve their team, so it should be a tough task for us, especially playing in their building and then back here Saturday night.”
The biggest improvement Florida made over the summer was in goal, acquiring Tomas Vokoun from Nashville in exchange for picks just before the entry draft in June. They also have a good young core featuring Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Jay Bouwmeester, and Captain Olli Jokinen always seems to have a good game against Carolina.
Even with a positive outlook to the start of the season, the Panthers have been disappointed with their 4-7 star thus far, which has them in fourth place in the Southeast.
While Andrew Ladd remains out for the immediately foreseeable future with an ankle injury, Niclas Wallin practiced with the team on Tuesday morning and will make the trip to Florida. He missed the Hurricanes last two games against Montreal and the New York Islanders.