Prior to dispersing for the Olympic break, the Carolina Hurricanes will play four consecutive games at home, beginning tonight when they host the St. Louis Blues.
Those four games will be played over a period of nine days, a much looser schedule than the five-games-in-seven-days segment the team recently wrapped in Montreal.
“I think it’s really important going into the break. We have four games at home with days off in between,” forward Patrick Dwyer said. “We need to go get these games. There are rest days after.”
Having a couple days between games here and a trio of days between games there, especially coming off a tightly compressed week, is certainly beneficial. Dwyer, who will return to the Canes’ lineup tonight, has missed the last four games with an upper-body injury.
“The schedule loosens up. When it’s a compressed schedule like that, you get nagging injuries that, in a normal season, may not be that big of a deal because you’d have time to take care of them,” Dwyer said. “This break gives guys like myself and other guys dealing with the shots off the foot or the slash on the wrist – little things like that – a chance to heal up.”
It also gives the Canes a chance to empty the tank against one of the NHL’s best teams. St. Louis comes in at 36-11-5 with 77 points, knocking on the door of first place in the Western Conference’s Central Division. In November, following a 3-2 win over Anaheim in Raleigh, the Canes had to face the Blues in St. Louis the next night. Though Carolina would score their first two shorthanded goals of the season that night – and 57 seconds apart, at that – they managed just 20 shots on goal and ultimately fell 4-2.
“It was a back-to-back. We had a tough game the night before against Anaheim and flew in there,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “No excuses, but we didn’t have those extra legs and juice to walk in and play them. The night before took its toll on us. But it’s a new game, and we’re ready to go.”
The Canes have had recent success against the Blues at home, claiming victory in four of the last five games played in Raleigh.
“We’re really just going to look at tonight, thinking of emptying the tank. We’ve got a few days to recover, and it’s going to take everything we have to play a hard game here tonight,” Muller said. “Our whole focus actually is not only tonight, but even the first period. This is a team you don’t want to get down on. You want to jump on them and have a really good, solid first.”
Numbers from the first period and getting on the board first are telling with these two teams. 30 of the Blues’ 36 wins have come when they score first, and they’ve lost just one regulation game in the same scenario (30-1-3). Likewise, the Canes have dropped just one game in regulation when scoring first (14-1-4). The Blues are perfect in regulation when leading after a period, 21-0-2, and the Canes are 11-1-2 when leading after 20 minutes.
“They’re a good hockey team, and they’re well-coached,” Muller said. “We’ve got to use our assets. We’ve got to make this a high-tempo game and move the puck on them.”
Anton Khudobin will make his sixth consecutive start in net. Khudobin, who has never faced St. Louis in his career, is 11-4-0 on the season with a 2.24 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. He’s played in each of the team’s last 13 games, starting in 12 of those.
Brett Bellemore will draw back into the lineup tonight after being a healthy extra in the team’s last seven games. In 35 games, Bellemore has averaged 18:02 of ice time per game and ranks third on the team with 110 hits.
Though the Canes preach taking the season one game at a time, tonight sets the table for a prime opportunity for the team to position itself properly heading into the Olympic break.
“You’ve just got to control what you can and focus on your game so when you get an opportunity to play, that’s your chance to pick up points,” Muller said.
“Going into the Olympic break you want to be in the top four. To position yourself to stay in this race is huge. If you look at the picture, from three to seven or eight is right jammed up in there and could go either way,” Dwyer said. “As long as we keep ourselves in this race, hopefully we’re in the top four heading into the Olympic break, and from there it’s a sprint.”