As crazy as the Hurricanes’ schedule was in the opening months of the season, they’ll finally get some relief in December.
The Canes are currently two days in to their lightest stretch of the season, playing just two games in 10 days. That includes a three-day break between Monday’s loss to Dallas and Friday’s game against Colorado, and another five-day pause following a Saturday contest in Nashville.
While coach Paul Maurice may prefer to spread the weekend’s back-to-back set out more evenly, the off days will give him a chance to emphasize some key points.
“With a younger group, it’s not about teaching it once,” said Maurice. “It’s about hammering the fundamentals over and over and over again.”
As much as the teaching aspect, another important factor is the ability to have some tough practices featuring plenty of contact on what Maurice likes to call the “dark areas” in the corner and in front of the net at both ends of the ice. At times, that’s what has been lacking from the team’s game as they struggle to convert chances from in close or prevent rebound opportunities in front of Cam Ward and Justin Peters.
“We need to get back to that grind, offensively and defensively,” said Maurice.
The coach added that he’s noticed a difference in the team’s game after stretches when they’ve been able to have tougher practices, as they did Wednesday. Following the Canes’ last three-day break, they posted their only three-game points streak of the season against Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Nashville.
“I thought we were better coming into each game where we’ve done it,” he said. “Anytime you run an even-strength drill there’s an offensive component to it, so I think we’ve had more jump offensively as well.”
Naturally, the break will be short-lived as January presents one of the tougher challenges yet, with games every other day, including a back-to-back, home-and-home set with the Boston Bruins thrown in for good measure.
Despite a month of November during which he scored 21 points (9g, 12a) in 14 games, Hurricanes center Eric Staal was not named one of the NHL’s three stars of the month, which were released Wednesday afternoon. He faced stiff competition, as the honors instead went to Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby (26 points), Montreal goaltender Carey Price (1.59 goals-against average, .952 save percentage) and Atlanta defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (17 points).
Although Staal may not have been recognized by the league, his coach nonetheless has an appreciation for his captain.
“He’s maturing,” said Maurice. “He had to balance the weight of our offensive game that he carries so much of with playing the minutes he does against sometimes the other team’s best. I think he’s come a long way with that.”
Erik Cole, who played on Staal’s wing briefly over the last few games before again switching places with Chad LaRose during the Dallas game, did not practice on Monday but is expected to hit the ice Thursday and be in the lineup over the weekend.