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Laviolette: It's not about milestones

by John McGourty

Carolina Hurricanes head coach Peter Laviolette earned his 200th victory as an
NHL coach last Monday night in Florida.
Like a wolf that's tasted blood and is tracking new prey, Peter Laviolette brushed off his recent 200th victory last Monday over the Florida Panthers. He didn't brush off the division-game victory, but he gave only brief consideration to his accomplishment.

The milestone? To the wolf, it's yesterday's meal. Laviolette needs fresh prey, more wins, a Southeast Division crown, an Eastern Conference title, a Presidents? Trophy, a Stanley Cup.

"I didn't really think about it too much," Laviolette said. "When you get into coaching, you're trying to win one game. You're never thinking about 100 or 200. Through the course of being fortunate to coach in this organization, having good players along the way, having your team be successful, I've been able to stay long enough to win some games. I have a great position in Carolina. This is a great organization. If a coach has a great organization behind him and talented players on the ice, it will eventually lead to milestones. I guess I caught one of them."

Laviolette is in his fourth season with the Hurricanes after coaching the New York Islanders for two seasons. He had a 77-68-19 record with the Islanders and is 124-88-25 with the Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes, who won the Stanley Cup two seasons back but missed the playoffs last season, lead the Southeast Division with a 12-6-3 record. A coach gets paid to find flaws when the team is winning, not pat backs and sip champagne. Two things concern Laviolette more than anything.

Last Wednesday's 6-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning was the sixth consecutive loss to a team that is within striking distance in the standings. Also, Erik Cole is hurt again and Carolina's man-games lost to injury are mounting.

"I'm always concerned about health issues," Laviolette said. "Our man-games lost to injury are up again this year, quite a bit. If we stay healthy, we can compete with anyone. Health is everyone's concern in the NHL."

Blunt-trauma injuries generally are seen as unavoidable, but strains and tears sometimes tend to indict the team's conditioning efforts. The Hurricanes benefit from their state-of-the-art training facility and the work of strength and conditioning coach Peter Friesen.

?Erik Cole's injury, that was clearly blunt-force trauma," Laviolette said. "Niclas Wallin had shoulder surgery. Andrew Ladd sprained his ankle and Cory Stillman was in a car accident, not hockey related. So we've just had different things pop up and we have to deal with them. A team tries to stay as healthy as it can because there are no acceptable excuses (for losing.)"

The Hurricanes last season became the first Stanley Cup winner to miss the playoffs the next year since the 1996 New Jersey Devils. That team bounced back to go to the Eastern Conference final in 1997, but two first-round exits followed that. The Hurricanes would prefer to emulate the 1971 Montreal Canadiens. After winning the 1969 Stanley Cup, the Canadiens missed the playoffs, but bounced back to win in 1971. There was a different coach in Al MacNeil and a different goalie in Ken Dryden, but a lot of the same players from two seasons prior.

Laviolette was asked how a coach gets a Stanley Cup-winning team back on track after a weak defense of its title.

"No one was happy with what happened here last year," Laviolette said. "Not the coaches, the players, the management or the fans. We set the bar high and fell far short of what we wanted to accomplish. We had five months to stew about it, get healthy and come back with a different purpose.

"It was a difficult year last year, just based on what went into the year before and the amount of surgeries following that season, some as late as the following training camp. I wish we didn't have a couple of key guys have surgery in August and September. We could never seem to get ahead of that and we wound up not making the playoffs. We had good players on the ice but we needed to play harder, better and more consistently and we didn't.?

"Failing has given us a lot of motivation for this year," Laviolette continued. "We kept the same things in place. Our system and game remain the same and has remained the same. We're in a different frame of mind. We're hoping to give the Stanley Cup another shot and be better prepared the next time that happens.

"Our fitness scores are up. I think we came back stronger to training camp. Eric Staal did a lot of work. So did Cam Ward and he's 20 pounds lighter. Those things, coupled with motivation, have us back on the right track. The players deserve the credit because they did the work in the summer, as far as strength and conditioning. They're the ones that have to put the wins in the column and they know it."

Laviolette said the Tampa Bay hex is perplexing and it's his job to find the answer but he's also looking at another target. Outpacing the Lightning in the Southeast Division is just one of the Hurricanes' goals.

"The division games are important, no question," he said. "To be honest, we're looking at Ottawa. That's the challenge we gave ourselves, to win the Eastern Conference, not just be one of the three teams that automatically qualify by winning a division. We don't talk about winning the division. We talk about winning the conference and then the Stanley Cup."

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