RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The young Carolina Hurricanes have proven those skeptics wrong who predicted they might be eliminated from the playoff chase before their home opener.
They wound up emerging from a daunting season-opening seven-game road trip with a winning record while showing signs that they could be very much a factor in the Southeast Division.
And while nobody's printing playoff tickets just yet, there's no denying that a 4-3 start has given the Hurricanes an early jolt of much-needed self-confidence _ especially since it came during a seven-game stretch that took them to Finland and, later, down the West Coast. By the team's count, they traveled more than 15,000 miles and across 11 time zones.
"I think that coming off a road trip that was very difficult ... and having as much or more confidence in yourself than when you left, I think we're happy about that," coach Paul Maurice said Monday. "I don't know that being a game over .500 fires anyone up ... but I think it's more a general understanding that we're playing pretty good hockey, and that if we keep improving in the areas, we could be a good team."
The Hurricanes will become the last NHL team to play on home ice Wednesday night when they host Washington in what's being billed as their North American home opener. Carolina is considered to have a 1-0 home record, however, because it was listed as the home team in the second of its two wins against Minnesota in Helsinki.
There were serious questions during the preseason about how well a youthful Hurricanes team _ only four players are in their 30s _ would handle that early stretch. Carolina won both games against the Wild, then lost a week later at Ottawa before spending a week out West, beating San Jose and Phoenix while losing at Vancouver and Los Angeles. More than one player called it "huge" to come back with a winning record.
"One of the big things following a big road trip like that is camaraderie between the guys and just being able to jel with them and get to know them, espeically with the young group we have and getting to know the older guys," defenseman Jamie McBain said. "Obviously having the success on the ice, getting to come back with a winning record, that's huge after a tough trip like that."
The Hurricanes have done it by getting some strong play in net, by spreading the scoring around and by winning a few close ones. Cam Ward is stopping 92 percent of the shots he faces, while seven Hurricanes have multiple goals but nobody has more than three. Carolina is 2-0 in games that have gone to overtime or the shootout.
One of the NHL's youngest players learned a valuable lesson about life in the pros _ 18-year-old center Jeff Skinner, who had the only goal in the shootout to beat Minnesota in Game 2. With one goal and three assists during the trip, he became the youngest player in club history to score a goal.
"It taught me about the travel, that's for sure," Skinner said with a laugh. "Being on the road for that long ... can be a bit of a grind, but it's also a good way to get adjusted to the pro game."
The challenge, of course, is for Skinner and the rest of the Hurricanes to keep things going through the peaks and valleys that are sure to follow during the remaining 75 games.
"I'm a lot more comfortable right now than where I thought we would be at this point," Maurice said. "That also doesn't mean you think, 'Well, this is somehow going to be easy.' I just feel we have enough players now that if all the things you need to have happen as a hockey team _ you come together as a group ... if you're willing to work as hard as you can, goaltending, health _ all the elements that any team deals with, then I wouldn't put any limits on how good we can be.
"At the same time, we're going to have our (difficult) stretches, and that's natural," he added. "I really do like this group. I think they get each other and they buy in, and we're getting some outstanding leadership from our veteran guys. ... They drive the skating (during practice), and that's good leadership."