Another week, another “playoff game” for the Hurricanes.
Not literally, of course, as the team still has to hold on to or improve its position as the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed for the last 46 days of the regular season. In order to do so, they’ll have to win several more head-to-head match-ups against the teams vying for the same postseason spot, namely the Atlanta Thrashers, Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers and possibly the Montreal Canadiens.
The way the rest of the schedule unfolds, the Canes will average one game a week against that group of teams, including Tuesday’s home contest against the Rangers. With a win, Carolina would tie the Rangers for seventh place while still holding a game in hand.
At the moment, no team in that group is firing on all cylinders, with the Hurricanes and Rangers holding the best records over the last four games with two wins apiece. However, the Canes have made up some ground over the last month, with the Rangers going 2-7-1 since Jan. 25.
Regardless of momentum going in, Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice expects a tough game.
“We liked our three games against the Rangers this year,” said Maurice, citing his team’s 2-0-1 record. “The first one was a goaltending festival, and the other two have been really hard-fought, hard-grinding games.”
While it wasn’t necessarily their downfall in Saturday’s loss to New Jersey, the Canes are hoping for improvements on a power play that has scored just once in its last 27 chances, including an 0-15 stretch over the last four games.
Maurice said that a recent trend of using some of his best offensive players on the penalty kill – a move that has paid off at one end with the Canes killing off nine consecutive penalties over the last four games - may be partially to blame.
“We’re running more and more of our power play guys to kill penalties,” said Maurice, who used Eric Staal and Erik Cole as examples. “The last couple of games our penalty kill has been really good, and I think we may have to back some of those guys off the PK to get them more energy.
“It almost looks like we’re looking to rest a little bit at times on our power play and not keep the 5-on-5 intensity up.”
Having had Sunday’s off day to catch up on some sleep, the newest member of the team, Derek Joslin, is hoping to bring more energy himself. After learning of Friday’s trade to the Hurricanes, the defenseman caught a 10:30 p.m. flight out of San Jose and connected through Atlanta before arriving in Raleigh at 10 a.m. on Saturday. At that time, he reported to the rink, ate a meal with the team and slept for just two hours being thrust into the lineup when a lower-body injury ruled out Joni Pitkanen after warm-ups.
“I don’t think the plan was to play me, but that’s just the way it worked out,” he said. “I was kind of nervous at first but I just let the adrenaline take over. I was running on fumes.”
Joslin logged 11:07 of ice time in that game, saying that he tried to keep things as simple as he possibly could without having had so much as one practice to learn what he described as a “whole new system” from the one he learned in San Jose.
“I tried not to think about it too much during the first game,” he said. “If I saw someone open, I was giving them the puck.”
“In some ways he has to re-learn the league a little bit coming to the Eastern Conference where it’s a whole new set of players for him,” said Maurice. “He’s big and he’s strong, and he’ll move people from the front of the net and he does possess a powerful shot. As he gets more comfortable here and we get to know him a little bit better, I’m sure he’s going to be fine.”
The trade came at an interesting time for the Joslin family, as Derek’s parents were vacationing in the Dominican Republic at the time and were unaware of their son’s move. According to Derek, they finally found out by scanning the NHL transactions section of a newspaper on their flight home.
“As soon as they landed they called me and I had to tell them that I’d been traded and I had already played a game with the new team,” he said.
Maurice said that he was not sure about his defensive lineup to face the Rangers, as Pitkanen is expected to play and Tim Gleason should be back after missing Monday’s practice for personal reasons. With all seven defensemen available, Maurice will have to choose between Joslin and Brett Carson. With the team likely to carry an extra blue liner for the foreseeable future, that should be a recurring decision.
“It’s a good problem to have,” said Maurice.
The Hurricanes coach added that Sergei Samsonov should be available to face the Rangers after missing practice for maintenance reasons, but that Ryan Carter, who has missed the last five games but did practice Monday, is still questionable.