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Gameday: Hurricanes vs. Panthers

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes

Kirk Muller will be behind the bench for his first National Hockey League game as a head coach tonight when the Hurricanes take on the visiting Florida Panthers.

Michael Smith
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Hosting the sixth best road team in the league and the Southeast Division leaders will be no easy task for Muller in game one. But, his message to the team this morning was simple.

“It’s a clean slate,” he said. “Where we want to start with is our effort, our commitment, our accountability and our energy.”

For the players, this morning was their first opportunity to meet with the new coach. Though Muller’s excitement was contagious in the locker room, there were lingering mixed feelings.

“There are a lot of different emotions, obviously,” Eric Staal said. “There’s disappointment in seeing a good coach be relieved, and then there’s excitement in a new face and new voice.”

Staal said Muller had an impressive playing resume, and he hopes that he can learn a lot from someone who played over 1,300 games in the league.

“I love the type of game he played as a player,” Staal said. “He was hard-nosed, hard-working, very honest two-way. I can hopefully lean on some of that.”

Brandon Sutter also had a strong impression of the new coach.

“It was nice to meet him, and from that point forward, he seemed like a great guy,” Sutter said. “He knows a lot about the game. He’s got new ideas, and it’s a fresh face.”

The Canes hope that having a fresh face in the room will help shift the tides in what has been a disappointing season thus far. The Canes sit at 8-13-4 (20 points), which puts them at 14th in the Eastern Conference. With only four wins in what has been a busy November schedule, the team needs to start winning now should they look to make a push for the postseason.

“It’s definitely not too late. We’ve still got a good portion of the season left,” Sutter said. “It’s a fresh start, so we want to get it going as soon as we can.”

Tonight, they’ll look to get it going versus an up-start Panthers team that, after acquiring 12 new players during the off-season, now leads the Southeast Division at 12-7-4 (28 points). It’s the first time the Canes will see the new-look Panthers, who are coached by former Hurricane Kevin Dineen.

Kris Versteeg (12g, 14a), Tomas Fleischmann (10g, 13a) and Stephen Weiss (8g, 14a) have combined for 71 of their active roster’s 166 total points. None of those players has had point-per-game success against the Canes. But, Carolina will need to be sound defensively, especially after the last three games which have featured numerous breakdowns that have led to goals in front of Cam Ward.

At the conclusion of this morning’s skate, Muller and Staal had an extended conversation at center ice. There was an attentive focus, a good amount of hand gesturing and even a few smiles to wrap things up.

“I just said to him, ‘I don’t need you to be superman. I just want you to go out here tonight and be my hardest-working player. Play hard, have fun and enjoy the game,’” Muller said about the conversation. “If he’s a better player and 19 other guys out there are better tonight than they were yesterday, then we’re a better team.”

“I’m excited to get to know him and learn from him as we go forward,” Staal said, “and it starts here tonight.”

NOTES: Lines remained the same from Sunday night ... For a visual look at those combinations, click here ... Muller wouldn't say who would be the healthy scratch on defense tonight, saying we'd have to wait until game time ... Jay Harrison skated briefly at the tail-end of this morning's session ... Harrison said today was a "yardstick" to see how he felt, as he takes his injury day-by-day ... Andreas Nodl could be in Raleigh for tonight's game, but it will be unknown whether he is in the lineup until game time.

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