It’s been awhile since the Carolina Hurricanes played in the friendly confines of PNC Arena – essentially a month, as they last hosted Florida and Montreal in a back-to-back home set on Feb. 7 and 8 before departing for the Olympic break.
Now, with just 20 games remaining in the 2013-14 season, the Canes will play nine games at home and 11 on the road, and 11 games will feature divisional opponents, beginning tonight (and Tuesday) with the New York Rangers.
“Every game is really important right now,” head coach Kirk Muller said after practice on Thursday. “We just have to be ready.”
Carolina snapped a five-game losing skid with a 3-2 overtime victory against one of the league’s top teams in San Jose on Tuesday. Muller said he’d like to see more of that same effort tonight against the Rangers, who lead the Canes by seven points in the standings.
“[I’m looking for] lots of energy and a high-tempo,” Muller said after the morning skate. “We want to play a fast game here tonight and build off of the game against San Jose, which was probably our best game of the year.
“[In San Jose] I thought our compete level was high, and I thought we played a real fast game. We put pucks in an area where we were able to retrieve them, and we spent a lot of time in the offensive zone,” he continued. “I liked the way we battled through the whole 60 minutes; whether we got scored on or we scored, we came back with another strong shift. We had a great first period, and yet we were trailing, so I liked the way we stay focused and stuck to the plan.”
Just as was the case on Tuesday, the Canes will be without the services of top-pairing defenseman Justin Faulk, who was sidelined for 7-10 days with an upper-body injury suffered in Anaheim. In his stead, John-Michael Liles paired with Andrej Sekera in San Jose, logging 23:17 of ice time.
“Losing Faulk at this time of year is tough. We had to make some adjustments to who plays with who back there. I thought it was Liles best game since he’s been here. He really stepped up and played a lot of minutes that night with a lot of responsibilities playing with Sekera,” Muller said. “All six were pretty solid. They played a fast team in San Jose, and I thought they matched up, competed and moved the puck well.”
Ryan Murphy will rejoin the Canes defensive corps for the first time since being assigned to Charlotte on Jan. 24. In 16 games with the Checkers, Murphy posted 18 points (1g, 17a) and was on an 11-game assist streak at the time of his recall, the longest such streak by an AHL player since the 2011-12 season and the longest by an AHL defenseman since 2008-09.
“I had some rough games. But looking back, I played some good games,” Murphy said. “I learned a lot down there from the coaches, and it’s a great group of guys pushing to make the playoffs. It wasn’t a bad experience. I had a lot of fun and learned a lot.”
Though the point production was ultimately there, the transition from the NHL to the AHL wasn’t exactly smooth.
“Any time you [get sent down], you’re not going to be in the best of moods. I didn’t know how to take it at first,” Murphy said. “At first maybe I was a bit lackadaisical playing on the ice, but I figured out I had to give it my all every game. That was the best chance of me getting back up here. Once I figured that out, it was a pretty good run.”
Now, Murphy figures back into the Canes lineup, where he has logged 11 points (2g, 9a) in 39 games in his first full professional season. He’ll also be featured on the team’s second power play unit with Liles manning the opposite point.
“They were giving me a lot of opportunities that I didn’t take advantage of,” Murphy said his play on the power play before being assigned to Charlotte. “Coming back here, I have a lot of confidence from playing down there. I got some points, and I played some power play. I’m just going to play with confidence and play the game I know how to.”
Another new face on the second power play unit is forward Andrei Loktionov, acquired on Wednesday from the New Jersey Devils.
“Loktionov gives us the playmaking, half-wall guy we were looking for with that unit. He has the ability to make plays,” Muller said. “He’s creative, he’s offensive and we were looking for a forward who could quarterback off the half wall.”
Anton Khudobin will get the start in net for the Hurricanes. Khudobin is 14-8-0 on the season and has not surrendered more than three goals in any of his 23 appearances.
Tonight marks the beginning of a three-game stretch versus Metropolitan Division opponents, all teams the Canes are chasing in the standings.
“We go one day at a time and one game at a time. We’re not even going to really talk playoffs or who we play next week,” Muller said. “We’ve got the Rangers in tonight, and we’ve got to do the job. If we take care of our business each day, then we’ll see where we end up later on.”