Hockey Stuff: Canes Stirred, Shaken and Unlucky

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The Carolina Hurricanes come into tonight’s game against the Boston Bruins like a strangely-mixed brew, thoroughly stirred and shaken.

Three straight wins – the last on Saturday against Florida, which featured a three-goal third period comeback for the Canes – have stirred the team and, for the moment, put Carolina back atop the NHL’s Southeast Division.

But they’ve been shaken, and badly, by injuries. The latest is the loss of Rod Brind’Amour to a season-ending knee injury.

Brind’Amour, the team’s all-purpose captain and two-way leader, went down with a torn ACL in the opening minutes of Thursday’s win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Carolina took that game, and followed that up with the win Saturday, but his absence in the lineup is impossible to mask – especially considering how banged-up these Canes already are.

That was plainly evident in Monday’s 5-1 streak-ending Presidents Day matinee loss to the New Jersey Devils. The fact is you could field a pretty solid team with the players on the Hurricanes’ roster who missed either Saturday’s win over Florida or Monday’s loss to New Jersey. In addition to Brind’Amour, the Hurricanes were without the services of:

– forwards Ray Whitney (groin pull) and Erik Cole (flu) on Monday; both could return tonight
– forward and new acquisition Patrick Eaves, who’s missed 10 games with a shoulder/neck injury
– defenseman Bret Hedican, who is day-to-day after missing three games with a lower-body injury
– defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, day-to-day after missing 13 games with an ankle injury
– defenseman David Tanabe, on injured reserved after missing 27 games with a concussion

Gone for the longer term, like Brind’Amour, are Justin Williams (knee, missed 25 games, likely out for the season) and Chad LaRose (broken leg, missed six games). Factor in the recently-traded Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore, and that’s 11 players missing from the season-opening lineup that jump-started the team back in October to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.

There are some positives. Matt Cullen (vision problems) returned to the ice Saturday, and Joe Corvo, who came from Ottawa with Eaves in the Stillman/Commodore deal, has played well. In addition, the Hurricanes have been particularly buoyed by the play of waiver acquisition Sergei Samsonov, who has 13 points in his 18 games with the team. But filling the gaps in the last few games have been players short on NHL experience, including American League call-ups like Keith Aucoin, Ryan Bayda, Casey Borer, Tim Conboy, Joey Mormina (who made his NHL debut Thursday) and Joe Jensen (who made his NHL debut Monday).

The lack of proven NHL-caliber talent makes the prospect of a strong finish to the season highly questionable. Players who have failed to raise their performance level over the last few months will be forced to raise it a notch or two higher than ever, and they’ll need for it to happen now.

It could happen.

In some ways, despite the injuries and in spite of Monday’s dud in New Jersey, the team is demonstrating some of consistency that’s been so lacking most of the year. The Hurricanes have won four straight at home and are 4-2 in their last six, with the two losses blowouts (by a combined margin of 11-2) at the hands of a very good New Jersey.

They still have a two-point lead in the Southeast and they play their next six (and eight of their next nine) games at home at the RBC Center in Raleigh. The margins, though, are miniscule. The pursuers in the division – the Washington Capitals and the Atlanta Thrashers – have games in hand on Carolina (two and one, respectively) and Florida sits just four points back.

It all makes for a down-to-the-wire finish to a season full of streaks of all kinds. The Detroit Red Wings, who until recently led the NHL’s overall standings by more than 10 points, suddenly lost six straight games before Monday’s win over Colorado. The erstwhile East-leading Ottawa Senators are 0-3 since acquiring Stillman and Commodore from Carolina and have allowed New Jersey and the Montreal Canadiens to catch them atop the conference standings. And aside from the Hurricanes and the surging Devils, only four other conference teams have won as many as six of their last 10 games.

The NHL’s new vision of parity is definitely a reality, but luck isn’t being distributed as evenly as the Hurricanes would hope. More bad breaks like the Brind’Amour injury could close the book on this season early, no matter how well the call-ups play.

Hurricane notes: Carolina is 3-0 against Boston, tonight’s opponent, this season…John Grahame, in goal in Monday’s loss, was making his first start since Dec. 31. Cam Ward had started the previous 12 games…Carolina hasn’t won four games in a row in more than a year, and has won three games in a row just twice this season…the game in New Jersey was the Hurricanes’ 800th regular-season game since relocating to North Carolina in 1997…Carolina will play 12 of its remaining 21 games against division rivals, with seven of those 12 divisional games coming at home…the Huricanes won’t name a permanent captain in Rod Brind’Amour’s absence…Eric Staal, who has worn the “A” of an alternate captain in road games, will wear it during home games as well after the trade of Cory
Stillman.

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