Battered and tired, Canes must push forward

Injuries or no injuries, fatigue or no fatigue, the time is now for the Carolina Hurricanes to swat away the frustration of what has anchored them for most of the past two weeks and find ways to play like the team they expected before the season began.

That is much easier stated than done, especially given their plethora of injuries, notably to needed defensive players. If only second-year coach Kirk Muller didn’t have to deal with another concussion to star wing Jeff Skinner – who missed time 14 months ago with the first one of his young career – or have two of his top defensemen on injured reserve, maybe the Canes could put a more than serviceable lineup on the ice.

Injuries have already cost the Hurricanes 45 total games played, including forward Tuomo Ruutu, who has missed all 18 contests so far and might never suit up this season. But Defensemen Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen have both missed the past six games with lower body injuries and fellow defender Jamie McBain has missed the last four contests with an upper body injury.

In their place has been a much younger and greener bunch that has performed admirably, but 19-year-old Ryan Murphy, to name one Cane getting a chance because of the shelved defenders, and some of the others generally aren’t going to give the team the same intangibles and gravitas the aforementioned players will. In time some will, especially Murphy, the team’s first-round pick in 2011. But there’s only so much Jay Harrison, Joe Corvo and Justin Faulk, et al, can do.

Add that high-scoring Skinner has missed the past five games and forward Tim Brent has also missed five contests. In Carolina’s fairly listless 3-0 loss at Washington on Tuesday night, seven Canes in uniform were not on the team’s opening night roster. The toll of having to give extended ice time to certain players was apparent.

“Another flat start, legs weren’t there,” said Jordan Staal, who leads the team with 11 assists and on Thursday will take on his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, for the first time since being traded to Carolina last summer.

“It is a tough season, there’s a lot of games, but we just couldn’t find our legs tonight. It just wasn’t our game again.”

Due to the lockout, which forced the shortened the schedule to 48 games and the season’s start three months later than usual, the Hurricanes will play their 19th game since the opener on Jan. 19. A year ago, the team played 15 games in the same span.

Four games may not seem like much of a difference to some, but it is, especially coupled with practices almost every day, even the mornings of most games. Carolina is scheduled to practice each morning at least for the next week.

As much as it wears on the players, it’s necessary for two simple reasons: The lockout meant teams had just one week for training camp, so they are still implementing more than what is the norm on the fly; and with so many new faces being shuttled to and from the minor league affiliate in Charlotte, and even Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League, where Murphy was playing and will eventually return, the Canes need to learn and build chemistry. Practice is one place to make that happen.

Muller was pleased with the team’s effort in D.C. given the circumstances, but while he’s not panicking in any way, in fact his measured demeanor and approach are a positive for the team and organization right now, he’s still concerned about the extra minutes some guys are getting.
“We weren’t skating the way we were in Long Island the other night,” Muller said, referring to their 4-2 victory over the Islanders on Sunday night. “Fatigue kicks in. Some guys are playing more minutes than they probably should and it catches up.

“That’s the way it is, you just have to rebound, go back home with a couple of home games get it going all over again.”  

The Hurricanes enter Thursday’s game tied with Tampa Bay and Winnipeg atop the Southeast Division with 19 points apiece. That figure is good for the eighth most in the Eastern Conference, too, so with 30 games remaining, the importance of Thursday’s and every game moving forward can’t be overstated.

One thing going for Carolina is that only Boston has played fewer home games (six) in the NHL than the Hurricanes, who have hosted seven foes. So, they will sleep in their own beds more than the players on 28 other NHL teams between now and the end of the regular season in April.

Considering everything the Canes have been through in recent weeks, that’s a nice little nugget to embrace. Of course, getting better and more consistent performances are paramount, too.