With dirt and the remnants of a dog-riding monkey littering the floor of PNC Arena, the Carolina Hurricanes had to hold their morning skate at their practice rink, Raleigh Center Ice, on Saturday.
It was a rare occasion, but one that used to be somewhat of a norm.
“This used to be the old way. Teams would practice lots of times in their practice rinks. It’s a bit of a different taste,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “We’ve had enough time here, and once our guys walk into the dressing room tonight, they’ll be getting their game faces on for a big game tonight.”
Tonight, the Canes will host the Florida Panthers, also something that used to be a norm as a former Southeast Division opponent. Now with the Panthers, who have earned points in three of its last four games, in the Atlantic Division, the two teams will meet just three times this season. Since the 1999-2000 season, Carolina holds a 28-7-4 home record against the Panthers.
Following two consecutive shutout losses, the Hurricanes used a week of practice to refocus their game heading into a stretch before the Olympic break that will see the team play 11 games in 22 days.
“We used (this week) to focus on the details, work on different stuff and reenergize the guys. They’ve got some rest, but they worked hard in practices, so they’re focused,” Muller said. “We should be a focused team ready for tonight.”
Carolina also utilized three days of practice to rearrange their lines, reuniting the “big three” from last season on the top line in Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty. Both Staal and Tlusty are a game removed from returning from injuries, and Semin has gone without a point in four of his last five games.
While the trio combined for 135 points (54g, 81a) last season, Muller isn’t necessarily looking for immediate production.
“I just want them to be one of our hardest-working lines. That’s all. If they work hard, they have the ability and skill there and are capable of scoring, making plays and playing against anybody,” he said. “Discipline, short shifts and play hard. If they do that, they might score this weekend or they might not. But when it finally kicks in, they’ve got the chemistry to be a very potent line. They can’t look at the production and results first without doing the little things.”
Jeff Skinner, who leads the team with 21 goals, will play on the left side with Elias Lindholm in the middle and Tuomo Ruutu on the opposite wing. Muller said the move could force teams to reconsider their match-ups.
“Skins creates a lot on his own. That’s why I think it’s great to have the flexibility of moving him around,” Muller said. “He’s playing with two good hockey players. Lindy is a play-maker, and Ruuts is a guy that has to get in there, create some havoc and create some turnovers for Skins.”
Anton Khudobin has never faced Florida in his career, but he figures to get the nod in net tonight, his seventh consecutive start. He holds a 6-2-0 record on the season with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage.
Tonight’s game is the first of one of two back-to-back home sets this season. It’s also the 11th of 20 back-to-back sets for the team. The Canes are 5-4-1 in the front halves and 3-4-3 in the back halves thus far.
Practicing on the smaller ice at RCI for much of the week, the Canes had high-tempo, high-energy practices with an emphasis on battle drills. Now, the team has to carry that into the game tonight and beyond, as they look to climb back into the playoff picture.
“They have been energetic,” Muller said. “I think our guys have been good like that for awhile. I think the big thing is, the past few days, they’ve brought the energy, and they’ve focused on the details of our game.
“It’s great to have the energy here, but you have to make sure you conserve it, save it and bring it into the game,” Muller continued. “It’s a big weekend, and it starts tonight.”