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Hurricanes get back to work

by Dave Lozo /
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Of everyone in the Carolina Hurricanes locker room Monday who was excited to get back to the business of playing hockey, coach Paul Maurice was clearly the most relieved that the All-Star festivities were finally over.

With three players in the All-Star Game and franchise goaltender Cam Ward taking part in the fastest skater competition during the Honda SuperSkills and getting blitzed during the first 20 minutes of Sunday's game, how could you blame him?

"I was really happy he didn't double over or something," said Maurice, who held his breath as Ward raced Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas on Saturday. "I'll tell you what -- I wanted that first period of the All-Star Game over as fast as possible. I thought it was great fun and we all had a good laugh, but there were six coaches out there in the NHL that didn't like anything the goalies had to do."

Ward and fellow All-Star Game participants Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner were given a day to rest Monday as the rest of the Hurricanes put the break behind them for a practice at RBC Center. With the Boston Bruins coming to town Tuesday to get the unofficial second half of the season under way, there's no time to waste for the Hurricanes, who sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference.

The Bruins and Hurricanes played a home-and-home series on Jan 17-18 with the Bruins coming away with a 7-0 blowout victory in Boston and a 3-2 win in Carolina the following night. Maurice said the game in Boston was the Hurricanes' worst of the season, but the loss at home was particularly devastating because their performance was the complete opposite.

"The second game was probably one of our best all season and we lost 3-2," said winger Jussi Jokinen. "I think it's going to be a wild crowd tomorrow coming off the All-Star Weekend. I hope we're going to get the crowd going and get an early goal and get two points."

The Hurricanes are on the outside of the playoff picture coming out of the break, but are just one point behind the eighth-place Atlanta Thrashers with two games in hand. Carolina was an impressive 8-4-2 in January and showed signs they are headed in the right direction.

Jokinen had 6 goals and 6 assists in 9 games after missing two weeks with a lower-body injury. Staal had 7 goals and 9 assists in 14 games. The Hurricanes exploded for 50 goals in January, averaging 3.57 goals per game after averaging just 2.75 over the first 36 games of the season.

But the pressure will be back on the Hurricanes to continue to push their way up the standings.

"Tomorrow you'll start to feel it," Maurice said. "This is the last gear before playoffs where the games get even more competitive and the pressure is greater on the teams fighting for a playoff spot. But we're used to and I think we're getting better and our game is improving the last month-and-a-half and our compete is clearly better than it was a couple months ago."

One of Maurice's concerns for the final 32 games of the regular season is the workload of Skinner, the 18-year-old rookie who reached rock-star status during the All-Star festivities. In the days leading up the All-Star Game, Skinner was asked to a prom by a local high school girl.

Now that the rest of the hockey world has gotten a glimpse of Skinner, the media is frothing at the mouth to get a piece of him. Budgeting Skinner's off-ice time down the stretch is a priority for Maurice.

"We will watch that, in all seriousness," Maurice said. "Because he has over the course of the year become more popular. People are taking note of him. We'll talk to our media people. The requests are mounting, more and more. And it's not the scrum, that’s part of the job of the NHL. It's the one-off requests that start to eat into the player's time."

So no more proms?

"He's cut off. He's all hockey now until the end of the year," Maurice said. "I've really enjoyed it. We've had a good chuckle. I think he would be the happiest player in that locker room when he hears it's all work now. "

One thing the Hurricanes need to improve is their penalty killing, which is ranked 25th in the NHL. Maurice mentioned during his conversation with reporters that he was headed to a meeting about the penalty-killing when he was finished, so it's clearly something that's given him cause for concern.

"I think it's going to be a wild crowd tomorrow coming off the All-Star Weekend. I hope we're going to get the crowd going and get an early goal and get two points."
-- Jussi Jokinen

The Hurricanes have allowed nine power-play goals in their last 10 games, and Brandon Sutter knows they need to tighten things up.

"I think when we're aggressive, we're pretty good when we're pressuring them a little more and trying to take away some of their time on the ice," said Sutter, one of the team's primary penalty-killing forwards. "It seems like every game we manage to give up a goal, so it's something we have to work on, but I think if we can figure it out in the next month, we'll be all right."

Earning a split in the season series with the Bruins on Tuesday remains the top priority.

"I would like to play even season with these guys," Maurice said. "Nobody's coming to the rink thinking this is an easy game for our team. That'll be a good way to get going."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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