With his team clearly needing some jump, Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford literally and figuratively stepped outside the box.
Heading into the second intermission of Tuesday’s game in Toronto with his team tied 3-3, Rutherford headed down from his suite to the locker room at the Air Canada Centre and delivered a rare face-to-face message to his struggling team, which had already lost three in a row.
“I address the players a couple of times a year, but not during games,” he said. “We were playing just to get by. We didn’t have that determination and look like a team that wanted to get into the playoffs.
“I didn’t want this to wait any longer. My frustration and my patience ran out, so I decided to say a few words.”
With five minutes left in the third period, the Canes got the goal they needed when Patrick Dwyer redirected a Tim Gleason point shot for the game winner. They would follow that up with a 4-0 victory the next night in Ottawa that saw them take the lead in the opening 10 minutes and never relinquish it.
So did the speech work?
“I don’t know,” said Rutherford. “You can’t deal in things day by day.”
At 7-4-1, December’s record marked the only month in which the Hurricanes have been better than .500. The team earned points in eight of a possible 12 games, but still suffered through the recent three-game losing streak that finally drew the ire of Rutherford
“We come out of December still in the mix and did what we had to do as far as where we are in the standings, but we didn’t play as well as we should have,” he said. “The real test is now, when teams are fighting even harder to move up in the standings.”
According to Rutherford, goaltender Cam Ward was the biggest reason as to why the Hurricanes picked up as many points as they did. The netminder posted a 2.05 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in December, capping off the month with a 37-save shutout of the Senators.
“Our team has been OK, and some players have played extremely well,” said Rutherford. “As a team, we weren’t coming together and playing for 60 minutes.”
Since the speech, Rutherford said he’s been pleased with the end result of the Toronto game and the next night’s effort in Ottawa, which he called “big wins” for his club. In addition to Ward’s continuously stellar play, another bright spot on the trip was 21-year-old Zach Boychuk, who netted his first two goals of the season in the first period against the Senators.
“These are the signs that as a manager you wait for and hope for. You wait for that break,” said Rutherford of Boychuk, who was tied for the American Hockey League’s second-leading scorer at the time of his recall. “He didn’t see as much ice time when he first got called up, but when the injury (to Jussi Jokinen) happened, he got that opportunity. He played a real complete game and did good things in the defensive zone to get the puck out. I think he has some chemistry with Brandon (Sutter), and if he keeps going he’ll only be back in Charlotte to visit.”
Speaking of injuries, Rutherford said that both Jokinen (lower body) and Joni Pitkanen (upper body) saw doctors on Thursday and are, pending results of those examinations, questionable for Saturday’s match-up against the New Jersey Devils. Jon Matsumoto and Bryan Rodney, who were recalled from Charlotte prior to the Ottawa game to replace them, were reassigned Thursday for the Checkers’ match-up against Norfolk that night. One or both of them could be headed back up if needed.
The team’s other injured player, winger Jiri Tlusty, is still another week away from returning from his upper-body injury suffered Dec. 16 in Atlanta, said Rutherford.