The last time the Carolina Hurricanes departed Raleigh for a road trip longer than two games was in early February when the team traversed the Eastern seaboard over 12 days and six games.
At that time, the team was sitting at 3-3, having seen a mixed bag of results in its first six games of the season. The Canes returned in mid-February riding a five-game point streak, having gone 4-1-1 on their longest road trip of the season.
Now, winless in six games, the Canes depart for a three-game, week-long road trip through Canada, their longest remaining venture away from home this season.
“I think the road trip is a good time to go,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “There’s no reason to feel sorry for ourselves. It’s just a matter of going up to Toronto and playing a good, hard game.”
Three points out of a playoff spot and six points out of first place in the Southeast Division, every game on the road trip is pivotal, perhaps none more so than the Saturday afternoon tilt in Winnipeg.
“We’ve just got to go shift by shift and really see how valuable these games are,” Tuomo Ruutu said. “We don’t want to look back after the season and say, oh gosh, I should have done that or this. We’ve just got to be right now and right here.”
Sticking to the Game Plan
Once somewhat of a slow-starting team, the Hurricanes have put together a number of aggressive first periods. The problem of late has been sustaining that pressure beyond the 20-minute mark. In their first 25 games, the Canes outscored opponents 34-15 in the second period; in their last six games, the team has been outscored 8-0 in the middle frame.
“The chances are going to be there, we just have to be more mentally tough so that when we don’t score and the game is close – the way these games are all going to be – we just have to stay with the game plan,” Muller said. “As soon as we get away from it, I do have to say we do have some bad breaks happening right now, and it seems like we pay the price for any little mistake we make. But the chances are there. We just have to stay and play 60 minutes.”
Bad breaks have seemed to be haunting the Canes. Thursday against New Jersey, an errant pass wound up in the team’s own net, vacated only because of a delayed penalty. Tuesday night, a minute after what probably should have been a too-many-men-on-the-ice bench minor assessed to Winnipeg, the Jets scored to take a 3-1 lead.
“We probably need a lucky break here and there that we aren’t getting,” Muller said. “But you have to create them by staying the course and doing the right things.”
Through this recent skid, the team’s shots on goal and scoring chances have been constant, for the most part. Tuesday night, the Hurricanes had 16 shots in the first period and finished with 39 in the game. With the clip at which the team has been scoring, it’s just a matter of finishing those chances.
“We’re getting really quality chances to bury teams early in the first period, and we’re just not putting it in. The same amount of scoring chances are there right now as there were 10 games ago. We’re just not finishing. A little bit of that is the pressure of the games. We’ve got to relax a bit,” Muller said. “We just have to bear down and capitalize on those opportunities, the way we did earlier in the year.”
Ruutu Back in Action
Returning in mid-season from injury is never an easy task. But to do it in the midst of a compressed schedule, when the pace and intensity of games is magnified, is even more challenging.
Two games in, Ruutu has risen to that challenge. The 30-year-old forward, who hadn’t played in nearly a calendar year, is averaging right at 15 minutes of ice time in his first two games back. He’s recorded seven hits and two shots. On Tuesday against Winnipeg, he logged 3:36 of power play time, as his role elevates with each passing period.
“As a player and as a professional, you always want a little bit more,” Ruutu said. “But it’s just being smart. I’ve been out pretty much for a whole year, so that’s why it’s good to ease myself in.”
Ruutu returned to the lineup skating on the fourth line. He was a part of the third line trio in Tuesday’s game, and in practice on Wednesday, he comprised the team’s second line unit along with Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal.
“He’s actually been really good,” Muller said. “We thought we’d get a couple (games) in before he pops up into that group, and it appears that he’s able to jump up with those guys and take those minutes.”
Even with Ruutu’s steady time-on-ice increases, Muller said he isn’t going to throw too much at the Vantaa, Finland, native at once.
“We’ve got to monitor it because what happens a lot of times is you jump in, you start off with a mad dash and then you hit a little bit of a [wall]. It hits you,” he said. “You’ve got to win hockey games, too. It’s going to be a test for him to sustain it and play the energized type game that he has to play to be effective.”
“It’s always tough to jump in mid-season, but at the same time, we’ve got only about a month left in the regular season,” Ruutu said. “It’s not always easy coming back from the injury, but at the same time, there’s so much on the line that it makes you try even harder. Mentally, you don’t want to think OK, I’ll just work myself in. You want to be ready right away.”
Muller said Justin Faulk (knee), Dan Ellis (leg) and Bobby Sanguinetti (upper-body) will travel with the Hurricanes on this three-game road swing.
Chad LaRose, who returned Tuesday night after missing 10 games with a concussion, has been sidelined with the flu. LaRose did not practice on Wednesday and will not travel with the team to Toronto, but Muller didn’t rule out the forward joining the team in either Winnipeg or Montreal.
More on Semin's Extension
Alexander Semin agreed to a five-year, $35 million extension with the Hurricanes on Monday evening, which keeps the Russian forward in Raleigh through the 2017-18 season.
Canes President and General Manager said that in re-signing Semin long-term, “things are falling into place” for the team. Muller shared Rutherford’s excitement.
“He’s shown a commitment. His teammates enjoy playing with him,” Muller said. “He’s a guy that makes our team better.”
For his part, Semin seems to have found a new home in North Carolina with teammates he enjoys being around both on and off the ice.
“I like playing here. It’s a good team for me. It’s a new life,” he said in English on Tuesday. “Washington is a big city, I know, but this is a good place for me to play hockey.”
Asked what the biggest difference is between Washington, D.C., and Raleigh, Semin quickly quipped, “No traffic.”
Muller said Semin, who regularly shies away from media attention, has been very communicative behind closed doors.
“He’s been one of the most vocal guys as far as coming to me and talking to me about ideas and thoughts he has or concerns and where he can be better and all that,” he said. “He’s on board, he’s engaged and he wants to make us a better team.”
As a player who, in 500 career in NHL games, has recorded 205 goals and 233 assists (438 points), it’s easy to appreciate the 29-year-old forward’s offensive flair. But he possesses a varied defensive toolbox, as well. He is a career plus-player at plus-80, and he’s averaged just over a half-minute on the penalty kill this season.
“He wants to be a penalty killer still, and he wants to show that he’s a very good defensive forward. He’s done that so far,” Muller said. “He’s probably one of the smartest players on our team.”
“I like playing with Kirk,” Semin said. “He suggests (things) to me, he helps me, he supports me. He’s a good coach.”