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Droschak: When Opportunity Knocks

by David Droschak / Carolina Hurricanes
The grease board in the locker room where the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings are logged each day is now blank.

“I think everybody knows where we are,” said defenseman Tim Gleason.

The tar pit of hockey doesn’t get any worse than this, a franchise-worst start after 15 games and stars Eric Staal and Cam Ward on the injured shelf for at least a couple of weeks.

If you would rate the road the Carolina Hurricanes have to navigate from this point out to make the postseason, “treacherous” probably wouldn’t do it justice.

And just where do the Hurricanes turn now without their cornerstones?

That’s pretty simple. The Canes organization, its coaching staff and players in particular have to view each passing day as an opportunity, like the one Brandon Sutter has seized since being called up from the minors or the one that former All-Star goalie Manny Legace is about to undertake in his first Carolina start in net Wednesday night against Justin Williams, Jack Johnson and the Los Angeles Kings. 

“It’s funny when you asked me about opportunity because that’s the word we’ve used,” said captain Rod Brind’Amour. “People can look at the glass as half full or half empty. You could look at it as how terrible we’ve been or look at the opportunity we have to turn things around. That’s why you play 82 games, thankfully in this situation, because it may take all of them just to get us back.

"If we were in the NFL we would be looking for a first-round overall draft pick, but we’re not.  Sooner or later that opportunity for somebody is going to cash in. There is too much of it going around if we keep to the grindstone. Our guys are still ready to go at the start of games.”

Players often mutter under their breath about “getting more minutes” or logging “power-play time.” Well, with a lineup void of scoring punch at the moment, the opportunity exists for anyone and everyone to step forward.

“Just look at how Tom Brady became the quarterback he is,” Ray Whitney said. “Drew Bledsoe got injured and he became the starter. It happens all the time in every sport. Is Tim Gleason a power-play guy? He might be. Is Brandon Sutter, at 20 years old, a power-play guy? He might be.

“You give people the opportunity to create. If one group is producing and there is a certain chemistry to that group, that’s who is going on the ice, regardless of stature or salary. This is a great chance for some guys to prove they can do other things,” added the injured Whitney, who may return to the lineup against the Kings.

In other words, the preseason plan has been blown to shreds. It’s time for the coaching staff to regroup and for the players to rethink how to attack the net in an attempt to break out of this woeful offensive slump. 

If Sutter can score three goals in seven games, others have to believe they can, too.

“Brandon, that’s one guy who has taken it to heart, for what he has to do to stay here,” Gleason said. “He’s not taking it for granted and taking it for all it’s worth. He’s run with it and good for him. Manny, for example, it’s a big opportunity for him as well. We’re looking for him to stand on his head because that’s what we need. Pretty much everybody in here has an opportunity right now to be that guy because it can’t get much worse. We’re looking for that one win and it will give us a big opportunity to get out of this mess we’re in right now and build from there.”

Call it a mess, a predicament or a pickle. It’s quite a sour taste at the moment for a team that expected big things, not a big-time losing streak that has reached a dirty dozen.

“Let’s not kid anybody, you know what kind of situation we’re in, but at the same time you have to learn lessons in life,” Tuomo Ruutu said. “It doesn’t matter what’s in your past. There is nothing we can do about those games now. We lost those games and just won two and that’s it. If you start thinking too far ahead and say, ‘OK, let’s go win 10 in a row’ I don’t think it’s going to happen like that.

“I haven’t really thought about how many points we have to have at a certain point, but at the same time we can’t say any more that we’ve got a lot of the season left because we can’t have any more losing streaks like this and we’ve got to have some winning streaks. It’s easy math. I can even do it.”

Let’s talk about winning streaks. Many guys in the locker room were on hand for Carolina’s nine-game surge in mid-March last season, while others like Staal, Ward, Whitney, Erik Cole, Matt Cullen, Aaron Ward and Niclas Wallin helped produce a pair of nine-game winning streaks during the Stanley Cup championship season of 2006.

Even if streaks don’t add up or are in the cards for this team in the near future, coach Paul Maurice had his own version of Math 101 after practice Tuesday.

“We look at our game and you want all your eyes there, to build on it and not to get overwhelmed by where you’re at,” Maurice said of Carolina’s 2-11-3 record and paltry seven points in the standings. “We can do the numbers any way we want to do them -- percentages of coming back, points you have to get -- but if you took the seventh or eighth place team and said ‘we’ve got to be one game better than they are each month and we’ll catch them,’ now that sounds possible.”

At the end of the day, we can retrace our steps back to the word “opportunity” as a theme players can hold on to when they skate each night in November, a key month indeed with seven more home games on the slate.

“There are 23 guys in here and I don’t know if any of the 23 of us has been through this many bad games in a row,” Gleason said. “But hey, there is an opportunity to get out of this mess and maybe end up with a good story at the end of the year. It would be a helluva story and something to remember.”

“In any job, especially hockey, an opportunity is all you really want,” added Brind’Amour.

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