Some players like holiday games more than others, but there’s no question when it comes to the coaches.
Not so much.
Year after year, Paul Maurice is always wary of the unpredictability that comes with the first game after Christmas Day, which follows a CBA-mandated two-day break from practices and games. However, even the game before that break, such as the one the Hurricanes will play against Montreal tonight, comes with its challenges.
“It’s about the time that families are here and people that are coming in are in,” said Maurice. “In a perfect world you’re playing on the road, but when you’re playing at home the distractions have happened. You hope your hockey club hasn’t decided to get too heavily into the eggnog before the puck drops.”
The Canes have been home since Tuesday and returned to the ice for a Wednesday practice at the RecZone, while tonight’s opponents are in a midst of a lengthy seven-game road swing that will see them return to Montreal for the holiday break.
Thus far, the Canadiens have lost both games of their trip in Colorado and Dallas as part of a longer stretch that’s seen them lose five of their last six games. Maurice was hesitant to call it a slump, as four of those losses have come against teams either leading their division or close to it (Detroit and Philadelphia, in addition to the two above), with the biggest disappointment coming at the hands of the 28th-place Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 11.
Although Montreal now has the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference, they still hold the No. 3 seed as the leaders of the Northeast Division due to their strong start.
“They’re not that far from being real good again, very quickly,” said Maurice.
Following a forehead infection that prevented him from starting Monday in Tampa Bay, Cam Ward will get the start in goal in his 300th NHL game opposite Montreal’s Carey Price. That’s the only lineup decision of note for the Hurricanes, while Montreal has rotated its grouping of late, having made Andrei Kostitsyn, their No. 4 scorer, a healthy scratch Tuesday in Dallas.
A match-up to watch for will be Carolina’s recently-improved power play (4-14, 28.6 percent over the last four games) against Montreal’s penalty kill. The Canadiens rank second in the NHL by killing 87.2 percent of their penalties, and are even better on the road, where they kill a league-leading 91.5 percent.
The last time these teams met on Nov. 13, the Canadiens skated away with an easy 7-2 win in Montreal, which came after an 8-1 Carolina home loss to Philadelphia. The Hurricanes have not lost consecutive games in regulation since. Carolina has earned points in eight of its last 10 games against Montreal, with losses coming earlier this season and exactly one year ago today (a 5-1 setback in Raleigh).
In other news, former Hurricane Scott Walker was named head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm on Thursday morning. It will be the first coaching experience for Walker, who ended his 15-year NHL career at the end of last season.
Maurice, who spoke with Walker about the possibilities of joining the coaching ranks over the summer, seemed genuinely thrilled by the news.
“He’s going to have a lot of energy. I’m just wondering how long until he’s over the boards and suspended,” he joked. “He’s a pretty positive guy, and I think he’s going to bring an awful lot of energy to it and he’s certainly going to get a new perspective on the game.”
Asked if Walker’s teams would play a physical style, Maurice had an easy answer.
“They’re going to have to play it whether they like it or not,” he said. “The interesting part will be how long before he puts his equipment on. That will be a fun practice.
“(As a player) he would just say, “Drop the puck and I’m just going hit whoever’s in front of me … that could be a systems flaw.”