After an Olympic tournament that exceeded its already lofty expectations, it was back to work on Monday.
Members of the Hurricanes team that did not participate in the 2010 winter games in Vancouver have actually been skating at the RecZone since Wednesday, but today was the last practice before boarding a plane to Toronto and resuming the NHL’s regular season after a 17-day break.
The challenge for the Hurricanes will be trying to maintain the momentum they enjoyed prior to that, when they won nine of their last 11 contests.
“You wanted it to keep going, but there were a bunch of sore guys and it looked like we were coming back into the injury season again with guys that needed the time off,” said coach Paul Maurice. “I thought it was good for our team, but sitting here today and feeling like you hadn’t played in a month and a half, you wish you had just kept going.”
Although Maurice said he had been pleased with the pace of this week’s practices, some rust is probably inevitable from those who did not participate in the games and have not played in 17 days. However, that should be spread evenly around the NHL, which could possibly lead to an interesting first few competitions out of the gates. Think of it as an exaggerated version of the dreaded post-Christmas game.
There’s also the possibility of fatigue amongst high-end players, as Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen, Tuomo Ruutu and Eric Staal played some grueling games deep into the tournament. However, Maurice thinks that the success those players enjoyed (the Hurricanes and Calgary were the only NHL teams to have all of their Olympians earn medals) is a resounding positive, particularly for the player that almost didn’t get to make the trip.
“I think of all those players, Tim Gleason will start to view himself the way we do here,” said Maurice. “Tim is a real humble man and he works hard every day, and I think this is an event that will give him an appreciation of how good he is.”
The four Olympians were not at practice Monday, as most flew straight to Toronto for Tuesday’s contest. It’s a tough schedule, but not as tough as what Team USA’s Paul Stastny and Brian Rafalski are facing, having to play for their clubs just one day after Sunday’s gold medal game. Unbelievable.
Amongst all of that, there’s the small detail of the NHL’s trade deadline, which is approaching rapidly. Teams have until 3 p.m. on Wednesday to complete deals, and with unrestricted free agents like Ray Whitney and Aaron Ward being thrown around frequently in hockey circles (the reliable Bob McKenzie of TSN chimed in on Ward today) it’s likely that the Hurricanes will be active.“It’s as it is any year when you’re in a selling position, so there’s a concern, but that has been that way for a while now and this isn’t just something that’s developed over the last two days,” said Maurice. “We’ve got young players here that are excited about the opportunity, but we do have a few veteran players that are not going to lose their cell phones in the next 24 hours. They’ll keep them close.”
Maurice acknowledged that there was some amount of tension surrounding the team, but also noted that the process began when the team made their first move, dealing Niclas Wallin to the San Jose Sharks on February 7.
Depending what happens between now and tomorrow night, Maurice could have lineup choices to make for the game against
Toronto. Erik Cole, Chad LaRose and Scott Walker are all expected to return after lengthy injury absences, and the addition of Alex Picard presents a crowded picture. As it stands now, the Hurricanes are expected to have 13 forwards and seven defensemen at their disposal to face the Maple Leafs – two more extras than they’re accustomed to.
”It’s going to be a bit of a challenge trying to fit all of these guys in, and we may actually have a healthy scratch for the first time in three or four months,” Maurice said.