When the Hurricanes and Flyers last met in Raleigh on opening night, few could have predicted that they would be holding two of the Eastern Conference’s last three spots one day after Christmas.
Fewer still would have foreseen the ensuing set of circumstances that will see Peter Laviolette, Michael Leighton and Kevin McCarthy back in the RBC Center, working to get a win over their former club as members of the Flyers’ organization.
Mark it down as yet another strange occurrence in a strange season. Old allegiances aside, if this game has any special meaning for Laviolette, he’s keeping that close to the chest.
“Our team is in a position where we need to win the game, period,” he said. “We’re not where we want to be or how we need to be playing, and that’s first and foremost.”
“There’s really good memories for me, but it’s been a year and the page has turned,” he added. “I’m part of a tremendous organization that wants to win and I feel fortunate to be here and to be given this opportunity.”
The Flyers are just 3-7-1 since Laviolette took the reigns, having recently reversed a four-game losing streak with a 5-2 win over Tampa Bay on Wednesday. Although he hasn’t had the instant success he would have hoped for, Laviolette knows first-hand the difficulties of taking over a team and installing a new system mid-season. He won just nine of his first 27 games as coach of the Hurricanes after being hired on Dec. 15, 2003.
“There seem to be some similarities,” said Laviolette of his current situation and that of six years ago with Carolina. “I think sometimes when you’re changing something or changing an identity or changing a brand – not that there’s a right way or a wrong way, because there isn’t – you find inconsistencies.”
Following that aforementioned slow start with Carolina, Laviolette’s team showed some improvement by finishing on an 11-7-4 run.
“I go back to that year (2003-04), and for the last 20 games of that year, we couldn’t make the playoffs that year but we were really tough to play against,” he continued. “We need to expedite that process here. It’s got to happen quicker.”
Although Brian Boucher
is thought to be available after missing two games with a finger laceration, Laviolette will hand Leighton the start against the team he left on re-entry waivers just 11 days ago. Leighton has appeared in the Flyers’ last two games – once in relief and once as a starter - posting a 1-0-0 record, a .920 save percentage and a 2.45 goals-against average. He made 31 saves in the win over the Lightning.
“Mike’s got an opportunity,” said Laviolette. “We weren’t perfect in Tampa and he made saves when he had to.”
Besides Laviolette wearing a tracksuit with orange trim where the red used to be, another strange sight at the RBC Center this morning was Eric Staal
patrolling the left wing on a line with Jussi Jokinen
and Patrick Dwyer
– an experiment that began during Wednesday’s loss against Montreal and will continue tonight. Full lines can be found here
The position is not entirely unfamiliar to Staal
, who played there during Team Canada’s Olympic orientation camp prior to this season and would most likely play there again if he’s selected to participate in the winter games on Dec. 30.
He’s been very receptive to the idea in the past, and may need to be if he’s to keep playing there for the immediate future. Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said that the move was designed to allow Staal to focus more on the offensive side of the game and to have a statistically stronger face-off man in Jokinen taking more draws. At 52.7 percent, Jokinen is the team’s second-best faceoff man behind Rod Brind’Amour (58.1 percent). Staal has won 41.6 percent of his draws this season.
“We’ve always felt that we had a bunch of center-icemen that we could move around, and with our production being what it is, we just felt we could move him around,” said Maurice.”
As a result of the move, Brandon Sutter
takes Staal’s spot centering Ray Whitney and Tuomo Ruutu
. Sutter was one of the few Hurricanes who could take some measure of pride from the Montreal loss, and was able to score regularly with team’s top wingers while Staal was sidelined in November.
“He’s going to develop into a player that does a couple of things for us,” said Maurice of Sutter. “We really believe he has the defensive mindset for the game to be a good shutdown center if that’s true and he continues to develop in that way. The other part of it is that we’d like to see how much offense he can bring.
“At the end of the day, we’re most importantly trying to win a game,” added Maurice. “He’s playing well right now, so we’ll get his minutes up with some offensive-minded players to see what he can do there. I’m not putting him there tonight so he’s good in three years. With the way he’s playing, we’ve got a better chance to win tonight if he gets more offensive minutes.”
Maurice also said that he doesn’t expect some of the oddities surrounding this game to end once the game begins. Contests held the day after Christmas can traditionally be somewhat sloppy from both sides, as last season’s 5-4 victory in Altanta demonstrated.
“The fewer strange plays that you see on the ice by either team, that team is going to win because there’s going to be some dandies,” said Maurice. “I expect, with both teams running a two-man forecheck and fairly close to the same neutral zone, that this one is going to be up and down the ice and just absolutely wild.”
Christmas? Right down to the orange color of the Flyers’ jerseys, this one is starting to more closely resemble Halloween.