“There'll be parties for hosting / Marshmellows for toasting / And caroling out in the snow.” So goes the 1960s holiday hit “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” recorded by Andy Williams, and around this time of year, it’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of the season.
|Michael Smith |
But for the Carolina Hurricanes, there’s still hockey left to be played. Two games separate the team from a short Christmas break, and focus was the main message of practice today.
“It’s all focus right now,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “There’s a lot of distractions. Family’s coming in. They’re all human beings. It’s a big celebration time of the year.”
The Phoenix Coyotes come to town tomorrow night in the teams’ only meeting of the season. Tonight, the Coyotes are in South Florida taking on the Panthers, who topped the Canes 3-2 in overtime on Sunday. At 16-13-3, Phoenix sits just two points out of a playoff spot in the West. The team’s leading scorer is a familiar face: Ray Whitney. The 39-year-old has totaled 28 points (10g, 18a) this season.
Ottawa will be at the RBC Center on the 23rd, in what will be the third of four meetings between the two teams this season. The Senators edged the Canes 4-3 in late November and 3-2 in a shootout in late October. Their leading scorer, Jason Spezza, has three of the team’s six goals (shootout goal is the extra seventh) scored against Carolina this season.
“We’ve had a good focus in the last 5-6 games and we’ve got two games left," Muller said. "That’s where we’ve got to be professionals, be prepared and be ready to go.”
After an off day for holiday community visits on Monday, Muller and his coaching staff skated the Hurricanes for about an hour today. The up-tempo practice ended with a shootout, complete with an ice scrape from the Olympia before shooting.
“We want to work hard, but you can have fun working hard,” Muller said.
Absent from the team’s practice today was Brandon Sutter
, who is nursing a lower-body injury. He will be in the lineup tomorrow night, according to Muller.
“We’ve got two games left until our Christmas break, and that’s where I’m concerned about making sure they’re ready to go,” Muller said. “So if anyone needed any maintenance, I told them, ‘Save it, and give it all for the games.’”
As has been the case in the last week of practices, the power play received a lot of attention. It continues to show signs of improvement, despite the team’s streak of four-straight games with a power play goal ending on Sunday.
The thesis of the power play: don’t get away from shooting the puck. On more than one occasion, Muller blew the play dead during practice when he saw a player pass up a shot attempt. As assistant coach John MacLean said in practice on Dec. 14, “We can’t pass [the puck] or carry it into the net.”
“You want to run the plays and move the puck around so you get the penalty killers out of position, but once you do, the purpose of it is to get shots and opportunities,” Muller said. “[We can’t] forget to have that shooting mentality when it’s there.”
Unlike another professional sports league, which will be starting its regular season on Christmas Day, the National Hockey League shuts down its operations for two days in observance of the holiday. There’s even a roster freeze in effect until Tuesday, Dec. 27, which bars players being traded or picked up on waivers and ensures a bit of stability around the holiday season.
So for the Hurricanes, the challenge is to stay focused until the weekend. Two games in front of the home crowd against two teams knocking on the door of the playoff picture before a brief break.
“We know where we are in the standings, but what we can control is our games,” Muller said. “If we put two wins together here at home, we’re sitting – who knows? – five points out at Christmas.”
“Tales of the glories from Christmases long, long ago,” perhaps?