Hurricanes still missing rewards for efforts

RALEIGH, N.C. — Kirk Muller says it’s about time his team is rewarded for its recent work.

The Carolina Hurricanes have lost nine of their last 10 games and are falling further from the playoff picture. The team’s saving grace, however, is that they play in the fledgling Southeast Division, which may have just one team qualify for the playoffs this season: Its champion.

So for the ‘Canes, who lost 5-3 to division foe Washington on Tuesday night at PNC Arena, the focus is more on winning the division. Of course, that requires winning games first.

Tuesday was a classic example of how things are going more often than not of late. Carolina was the better team throughout the game but in the end it didn’t factor in the result.

Washington had just 19 shots on goal to Carolina’s 34, though the Capitals’ five goals came on their first 11 shot attempts. But a medley of ill-timed unforced turnovers that led to scoring opportunities for the Capitals, of which they responded at least twice, and some other snafus gave Washington just enough room to earn the victory.

But for the most part, especially given that this team has now been without goaltender Cam Ward for more than a month, the ‘Canes believe they are playing well enough to win games.

“The staff is behind these guys,” Muller said after Tuesday’s loss. “The leaders are pushing them the way they are and guys are having performances like tonight. Usually you get rewarded somewhere.

“We’re being tested now, and I’d call a spade a spade if we didn’t play well, but there’s been a few games lately where we’re not getting points where we deserved better.”

But at some point, the Hurricanes (16-17-2) need to do even more to get that reward. Points just don’t come easily in the NHL, and as long as Ward is out, the Canes need to improve in front of him. Not having defenseman Justin Faulk may have been an even bigger blow in some respects.

Faulk hasn’t played since March 19, a span of six games, and there’s no certainty when he will return, so the team made a move Tuesday to bolster its defense.

Carolina picked up Marc-Andre Bergeron from the Tampa Bay Lightning for forward Adam Hall and a seventh-round draft pick this summer. Bergeron has played in 478 career games scoring 82 goals and delivering 150 assists. He was also on the Edmonton team in 2006 that lost in the Cup finals to Carolina in seven games.

The newest Hurricane was impressed with what he saw and experienced in his first game Tuesday, even though moving forward that won’t include fellow defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who broke a bone in his leg and is out for the season.

“It’s a very good hockey team,” Bergeron said. “I’m used to playing against these guys, but playing with these guys tonight I was like, ‘Wow, these guys are very good.’ I’m very glad to be here. I just want to help these guys, it’s why I’m here and it’s my job.”

In part, Bergeron should help lift one of the worst power plays in the NHL — a strength he’s known for around the league — and it just so happened that Carolina netted two goals with a man advantage on Tuesday.

Kiri Tlusty, who has been around since last season and had the first hat trick of his career Tuesday, believes the reward Muller spoke about is coming, and when it does it make come in droves.

“If we stay with the plan like we did tonight we have a chance to win most of the games,” Tlusty said. “We need a win. We have to win the next upcoming game and then it’s going to be a snowball, it’s going to keep rolling. We did plenty of good things tonight. We have to stay focused.”

Tampa Bay visits Raleigh on Thursday and the New York Rangers come in Saturday night.

With 13 games remaining, the ‘Canes are five points out of the eighth playoff spot but just four points from the top of their division. So the reward of earning a playoff spot is there for the taking.