The Hurricanes’ current three-day break between games, their first since before opening night at the RBC Center, couldn’t have come at a better time.
Not only is it a brief time out from their previous two games that saw them outscored by a combined total of 15-3, but it’s a rare chance to have tough practices designed to reinforce some of the elements they’ve been lacking.
“It’s difficult to take a team playing every second night, work on grinding defensive parts of the game and expect them to have anything left,” said coach Paul Maurice after Monday’s session, which was noticeably geared more towards that particular aspect. “Clearly it’s an area that we have failed in our last two games.”
The Canes really didn’t practice at all during a recent stretch in late October and early November, at one point going 12 days without hitting the ice for any extended period of time outside of games and pregame skates. They took this past Sunday off, practiced hard Monday and should do so again on Tuesday before they host Ottawa the following night.
“It’s nice to have a couple of days at home to be able to be on the ice together and work on things that will help our game and make us more consistent,” said Eric Staal.
That isn’t to say that Monday’s practice was over an hour of pure punishment, although it did feature plenty of skating and battling.
“We’ve seen so many times with young teams that if you crush them on their mistakes, then you will have a year of very difficult time,” said Maurice. “We have things we have to work on, but you have to be careful about taking the confidence out of your hockey club.”
When asked to point out the main differences between the last two games and the two prior to that against Edmonton and Florida, arguably two of their best this season, Staal, like Maurice, also cited the team’s defensive efforts.
“We’ve given up some chances that we shouldn’t with some of the puck decisions that we’re making, and right now they’re costing us and ending up as goals, not just chances against,” he said. “We’ll work at it here this week and look forward to playing Ottawa.”
To that point, Maurice said that goaltender Cam Ward has not been as sharp as he was earlier in the season, having been pulled midway through each of his last two starts and stopping just 27 of his last 35 shots against. Few of those can be placed directly on him, but he also hasn’t been covering mistakes the way his coach now expects him to.
“He’s learning what it’s like to have to be very good to great every night, but he is that good,” said Maurice. “There is pressure on him to do that.”
“I’m just like everybody else,” said Ward. “I’ve got to hold myself accountable and come up with the big saves.”
Short of making a call to Charlotte of the American Hockey League, the Canes have just one option for a lineup change, which they play to use Wednesday. Maurice said that Patrick O’Sullivan will play just his sixth game of the season and first since Oct. 30, with Jiri Tlusty expected to sit out.
“Sully has sat and watched enough hockey,” said Maurice. “I just have always wanted to make sure if we started taking guys out there was a reason for it.”
The move will bump Jussi Jokinen, who has been on the fourth line recently, back into the top nine. The versatile Finn had two assists in Montreal on Saturday and was one of just two Carolina players to emerge with a positive plus/minus rating (Tom Kostopoulos being the other).
Much like Sergei Samsonov before him, it seems that he has begun to earn his way back to a scoring role through hard work.
“Jokinen is an interesting guy,” said Maurice. “He did not get off to the start … with 30 goals he probably thought it would be a little different, but boy, I think he’s handled it well.”