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Gameday: Hurricanes vs. Sabres

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes

Even though the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t have a morning skate today, the message for tonight's game agains the Buffalo Sabres was made clear yesterday: focus.

Michael Smith
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“The challenge is not to focus on anything more than one thing, and to get that focus on one thing throughout your lineup,” head coach Paul Maurice said.

The focus for tonight? Defense.

In their last three losses, the Canes have surrendered 14 goals, an average of 4.67 goals per game. Their season average sits lower at 3.47, but that’s 29th in the league. Cam Ward has been chased from the net twice in just over a week, decisions that were based more on how the team in front of #30 was playing.

With Ward and the rest of the team visibly and notably frustrated, expect the Canes to play a team-based, defensive game tonight. On Wednesday in Montreal, the Canes allowed 32 shots in just two periods of play before limiting the Canadiens to just four shots on goal in the final period.

“We just have to play as a team. That’s our plan for tomorrow,” Alexei Ponikarovsky said after practice on Thursday. “We’re just going to shut it down defensively, and that’s going to help us create opportunities offensively.”

“Clearly, we’ve struggled defensively, but it seems like we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the offensive parts to our game, getting offensive players going,” Maurice said. “We weren’t a good team [Wednesday] night in any parts of the game, and our focus has to be on each player playing that good, solid defensive game.”

The coaching staff has tried numerous combinations on Eric Staal’s line in an attempt to get the slow-starting captain back on the scoresheet. It worked to some degree, as Staal had three points in two games before the team was held scoreless by Montreal, but the focus of the team can’t be solely on one player.

“The message from him and every player is the same – they put their personal game aside and not look at [tonight] as a breakout game, and he’s done that,” Maurice said.

In trying to generate offense, the Canes have come off their defensive game which seemed to be yielding positive results in the early stages of the season. Maurice said disjointed play is the first thing he has noticed in the team game; rather than moving off the first guy with the puck as a cohesive unit, each player is trying to do his own thing in hopes of putting the puck in the net. This has led to defensive breakdowns and numerous odd-man rushes.

“We’ve got a number of players searching for their game. When you struggle, you get more and more players doing that,” Maurice said. “And the problem becomes when those games are different games. Then you’re not playing a good team game. You’re not playing a focused, team hockey game. And I think that’s what’s happened to us here.”

As a team, the Canes will look a little different tonight coming off a player swap with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League.

Forward Zac Dalpe was reassigned yesterday to the Checkers. That roster move freed up a spot for Anthony Stewart, who will re-enter the lineup tonight after being a healthy scratch in the last three games. Yesterday in practice, Stewart skated on a line with Staal and Chad LaRose. Maurice said Zach Boychuk may also get a look with Staal.

Defenseman Justin Faulk was recalled from Charlotte yesterday, as well. This move suggests roster changes on the back-end. Derek Joslin and Jamie McBain have been scratched off and on this season, but Maurice gave no indication of who might come out of the lineup.

In any case, in order for the Canes to succeed tonight and in games ahead, they have to play a smart, team-oriented game, no matter who is in the locker room.

“You’ve got to be confident with who you’ve got in the locker room or you’re not going to go anywhere,” Ward said. “But it’s that compete and fight level that you’ve got to bring every single night.”

Tonight, a Buffalo Sabres team minus goaltender Ryan Miller comes to town. Miller was injured Saturday in a match-up with the Boston Bruins when Milan Lucic delivered a questionable hit. Goaltender Jhonas Enroth played most of the Sabres’ last game on Wednesday versus New Jersey, but he was pulled midway through the third period in a 5-3 loss.

Enroth backed the Sabres to a crucial 2-1 overtime win over the Canes on April 3 of last season. In that game, his only career game against Carolina, Enroth made 35 saves on 36 shots.

Though tonight’s game is in November and not April, it carries similar weight to last year’s late-season, playoff-like match-up. Knocking on last place in the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes are facing a barrage of questions and need a win. An inspired team effort at home against an intra-conference rival could be the answer they are desperately searching for.

“You can turn this thing around in a heartbeat. We’re not that far off,” Poinikarovsky said. “We can’t just give up and not do anything about it. We have to stick together, play together as a team, play for each other and battle hard, and that’s going to do it.”

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