'Mo' makes Canes go

Coach Paul Maurice, in his second stint leading the Hurricanes, has changed his approach and gained perspective since becoming Carolina's coach again last December and leading the team to the playoffs.

STAFF WRITERMay 23, 2009 

There are two versions of Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice -- the old "Mo" and the new one.

By his own admission, the new coach Maurice is much more relaxed than he was the last time he led the team. He is better at throttling back the intensity, more confident when dealing with players.

Friday's performance at his news conference was vintage Mo -- sarcastic, coy and decidedly in the laughter-is-the-best-medicine camp. But you would never be able to discern the desperation of the Canes' situation, down 2-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals, by listening to their coach banter with the media.

"I'm in a good mood," Maurice said. "Just take it as I'm in a good mood."

It has been almost six months since Canes general manager Jim Rutherford turned to Maurice, his old friend, to save the season. Maurice did -- not that he'll take any credit for it -- by injecting confidence into the locker room and managing the different personalities on the team.

Under Maurice, the Canes went from the fringe of the playoff race to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Two rounds and two upsets later, the Canes find themselves in a familiar spot. Coming off a defeat to Pittsburgh.

Maurice's first game back as coach? A home loss to the Penguins.

"I had no idea what we were doing [then]," Maurice said. "At least this one [Thursday night's 7-4 loss], we know where we made our mistakes and where we have to get better."

It was out with the old and in with the older when Rutherford chose Maurice to replace Peter Laviolette on Dec. 3. Five Decembers earlier, Laviolette had replaced Maurice.

In the interim, Maurice coached one season in the minors and two in the NHL in Toronto, the hub of the hockey universe.

Still an impossibly young 42, Maurice, who spent the first nine seasons of his career with Hartford and Carolina, had gained a new perspective on the game.

Offered the head coaching job of the then Hartford Whalers at age 28, Maurice had grown with the team and led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup finals in 2002. He was fired a season and 20 games later and watched Laviolette lead the team to the Stanley Cup championship in 2006.

Meanwhile, Maurice's brief run with Toronto Maple Leafs ended with a firing in 2008.

But the Hurricanes had problems of their own, missing the playoffs in '07 and again in '08. Through 25 games this season, they were playing at a point per game pace that would likely put them on track to watch the playoffs again.

Rutherford called on Dec. 2.

"We're going to make a change. How soon can you get here?" Rutherford asked.

Maurice, on the other end of the phone in a Toronto suburb, laughed.

"Can you get here tonight?" Rutherford continued.

Maurice realized his former and future boss was serious.

The next day, Maurice walked into a locker room that was filled with a palpable tension and fear, as he put it. His message was simple.

"You're a good team," Maurice told the team in their first meeting.

Star center Eric Staal said Maurice gave the team a new start.

"We wanted to win so bad," Staal said. "Sometimes, as hard as it is, a fresh voice and a new face is what everybody needs to hit the refresh button."

The Canes responded to Maurice's positive reinforcement by going 12-10-3 in his first 25 games -- one point better than the pace under Laviolette.

But Rutherford noticed the confidence building. With the additions of Jussi Jokinen and then Erik Cole, the Canes got deeper and then got hot. They finished the regular season 13-3-2 and stayed at a high level, winning a pair of Game 7s on the road in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

"As a team, we couldn't get confidence," Rutherford said. "Different guys would be confident at different times. He deserves credit for bringing that together. That's what we asked him to do, and he did it."

No credit required

Paul Maurice is not interested in getting credit for the Canes' success.

Give it to Mr. Karmanos, as he still respectfully refers to the team's owner Peter Karmanos 25 years after playing for his junior team, or assistant coaches Ron Francis and Tom Rowe or Rutherford or goalie Cam Ward.

"It has been a team effort, nothing I've specifically done," Maurice said.

But Maurice has made moves on and off the ice that have paid off.

With one goal in 34 games, Maurice gave captain Rod Brind'Amour a two-game break in February that amounted to a week off in the middle of the season for the 38-year-old center. Brind'Amour, who had eight goals in the first 52 games, finished with eight in the final 16 games.

"A big part of coaching is you have to know your team," said Francis, who's four years older than Maurice but played five seasons for him. "He has always been very fair and very much a players' coach and willing to listen."

In the playoffs, Maurice's ability to handle lineup changes has impressed Rutherford, in particular his decision to use Scott Walker on the same line as Staal in Game 7 of the Boston series.

Some coaches would have buried Walker, who had been embroiled in a controversial ending in Game 5 of the series for throwing an ill-advised punch, but Maurice put him on a line with his best player -- and against Boston's best defensive pairing.

"Suddenly the focus was Walker, and there's more room for Staal," Rutherford said.

Walker, of course, ended up scoring the series-clinching goal in overtime.

Down, not out

Down 2-0 and facing what amounts to a must-win game tonight, Maurice will likely go back to his original message -- you guys are good -- before Game 3.

"I don't feel that we were that far off," Maurice said of Thursday's loss in Pittsburgh.

He wouldn't say Friday what he told his team after what could be construed as an embarrassing loss.

"I'm not even guaranteeing you I talked to the team after the game last night," Maurice joked. "I'm giving you nothing."

He was having too much fun with the gathered press to stop.

"You know what, you make the team, you get to sit in that locker room and you get to hear every word," Maurice deadpanned. "But if you can't make it through training camp, you don't get that stuff."

The new Mo, in some ways, just like the old one.

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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