Following their longest break in between games in this compressed season, the Carolina Hurricanes got back to work on Monday.
The four-day reprieve couldn’t have come at a better time. The Canes are winless in their last five games (0-4-1) and have dropped out of first place in the Southeast Division.
But that was then and this is now.
The team used a hard-working, skating-filled practice on Friday to close the book on their recent slump.
“After [the practice], we said it was over. The message was clear,” head coach Kirk Muller said on Friday. “We’ve got to come back with a good, hard practice, and that will get us ready for the next big game. It’s all done with, and we just move forward.”
A weekend off and away from the rink allowed the players to rest and recharge in advance of the team’s final 18 games that will be crammed into the next 33 days.
“Any time you can get rest, you’ve got to take advantage of it, especially in this compressed schedule. It just so happened that we’re at where we’re at in our game, and I think two days of break mentally and physically is going to help us,” said Eric Staal, who was still wearing a visor with his brother on Monday in practice. “We’re an up-tempo, aggressive, energetic team. Being refreshed, we can be excited about being at the rink tomorrow and playing a home game against a team we have to catch.”
Even despite the team’s recent slide, the Hurricanes are still very much a part of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Carolina sits in ninth with 32 points, just a point out of eight. And, come Tuesday, they will have at least a game in hand on every team in front of them.
“At the end of the day, we’re there. There are areas we’re really happy about. There are areas we could get better at. But, we’re in it, and that’s where you want to be,” Muller said on Friday. “We’re in a good spot. We’re looking at the overall picture, and not the last three or four.”
Though the playoffs do not officially start until April 30, the team is treating this stretch run as an extension of the postseason.
“Pretty much, this is the playoffs right now,” Muller said after a focused, hour-long practice on Monday. “From here on in, there won’t be any chance to pause and regroup.”
“Right now, the way the schedule is, it’s almost like playoffs. You’ve got to leave it behind you and move on, whether it’s a win or a loss,” Staal said of the team’s mindset. “You have to refocus and take it into the next game because there isn’t time to dwell on it either way.”
Despite a rapid swell of injuries last week, the weekend rest healed a few bodies, as Chad LaRose and Joe Corvo participated in a full practice with the team on Monday. Muller said it’s possible the two could play on Tuesday.
In total, the Hurricanes rolled five forward lines in practice. Though they are unable to ice all five lines in a game, look for all 15 forwards to factor in at one point or another in this stretch run.
“There’s a lot of demand on the forwards to skate in our system,” Muller said. “We’re going to need a lot of bodies to grind it out down the stretch, and everyone’s got to be ready when they get the opportunity.”
Getting an opportunity this week will be goaltender Justin Peters, handed the starting reigns after Dan Ellis was sidelined with a leg laceration in Thursday’s game. Ellis, who required 17 stitches, cut himself with his skate while attempting a save. The cut, he said, just missed his MCL, which obviously would have made the injury much more severe. Instead, the team could get him back as early as later this week.
“Collectively, if we each pull the rope together, we’ll be fine. We know that Justin is going to compete and battle as hard as he can because that’s just the type of person he is,” Staal said. “We’re excited to play in front of him.”
“He’s confident, and he’s excited,” Muller said of Peters. “The two things I love about him is his competitive edge that he wants to be in net. He’s not looking at this going, ‘Wow, how did I get here in this position?’ He wants to be in net tomorrow. And secondly, the guys love playing in front of him.”
Ahead on the schedule this week includes a set of games against Winnipeg, the team currently leading the Southeast Division. The Hurricanes trail the Jets by four points in the standings and have three games in hand.
Given the opponents and the circumstance, it’s a big week, to say the least.
“Huge game tomorrow,” Muller said. “We’re rejuvenated, we’re refocused and we’ve just got to take it one game at time.”
“It’s big. We’re down to the last stretch of games here,” Staal said. “Divisional opponents are always huge, and Winnipeg is ahead of us. We’ve got to take advantage of playing against them and playing our best hockey to pick up points.”