As much as the New Jersey Devils have struggled to start their season, their opponents tonight understand that all too well.
The Devils are off to a 10-25-2 start (22 points) that has them at the bottom of the league standings through 37 games. At the same point last season, the Hurricanes were only marginally better at 9-22-6 (24 points).
While the Canes have put those tough times behind them and are in the thick of a playoff race that had already eluded them one year earlier, they can certainly relate to the Devils’ plight.
“You have to keep in mind what these guys have gone through emotionally and mentally,” said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. “Anything that feels good you want to hang on to because they’ve had such a difficult start to their season.”
The Devils are coming off a rare victory, having beaten the Atlanta Thrashers by a 3-1 score in New Jersey Friday night. It was just their second victory in their last 13 games, and was the first win for new coach Jacques Lemaire, who replaced John MacLean on Dec. 23.
“They win a game last night and it’s their first one with the new coach so they’re feeling good and they want to keep it going,” said Maurice. “They’re not talking about the pressure of clawing back into the playoffs yet. They just want to win tonight.”
In what could be an advantage for the home team, the Devils played last night and had to travel, while the Canes sat idle at home. Carolina has found itself in the other position several times this year, although it has not always mattered much.
“We have to be prepared to take advantage of it the way Ottawa and St. Louis did,” said Maurice, referring to two recent Hurricanes wins that came against rested opponents.
The Canes will have Brett Carson and Zac Dalpe in the lineup tonight for the injured Jussi Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen. It’s the fourth recall of the season for Carson, who has played three games with the Hurricanes, and the first for Dalpe since he was assigned to Charlotte of the American Hockey League after playing his first seven NHL games to open the season.
Carson was paired with Jamie McBain during Saturday’s morning skate, while Dalpe skated on the fourth line’s left wing with Ryan Carter and Troy Bodie, despite having played center all season with Charlotte.
“I’ll play anywhere they want me to play,” said Dalpe, who has 23 points in 23 AHL games this season. “That’s kind of a cliché answer, but I can’t really bat an eye.”
Dalpe only recalls having played the left wing for one shift for the Checkers this season, but it was a memorable one. In Norfolk on Nov. 24, he scored two goals 11 seconds apart in the game’s final minute to give his team a 4-3 victory. His second tally, the game-winner, came right off a faceoff when he lined up on the left side.
“It was the first time I’d played wing down there,” said Dalpe. “I don’t really know why I was out there, but the puck kind of bounced to me and it was just sheer luck on a breakaway. It all happened pretty quick.”
That kind of burst is precisely why Maurice will use Dalpe on the wing, despite his demonstrated success at center.
“I didn’t like (Ryan) Carter on the wing when I moved him there for (Jon) Matsumoto, and I didn’t like Jon there either,” said Maurice, referring to changes he made during the team’s last game at Ottawa. “Dalpe has got some speed and I know he’s played center down there, but we’re looking for some speed on the wing and he needs to get a chance here.”
Dalpe comes up with some confidence, having recorded 3 assists in his last two games. In his brief AHL career with Albany and Charlotte, including both the regular season and playoffs, the 21-year-old has 37 points (21 goals, 16 assists) over 40 games. During his season-opening stint with the Canes, he logged one assist, which came in his NHL debut.
“I know when I was (with the Hurricanes to start the season), I didn’t get many points, which I wasn’t mad about,” he said. “But then I go down there, I’m a guy who likes to score goals so it’s always nice to pop a couple in. Hopefully I can keep continuing that streak.”