RALEIGH — Eric Staal and Ray Whitney were fighting for the puck Thursday in front of goaltender Cam Ward, banging bodies, banging sticks, their one-on-one duel intense and competitive.
While much has been made of the Carolina Hurricanes' seven-game winless streak and disappointing plummet to 13th place in the Eastern Conference, coach Paul Maurice said a big part of the solution and turnaround lies in a hockey basic: winning battles.
"Simple things, close-quarter areas," Maurice said Thursday after a long practice. "You spend a lot of time working on your systems, but none of them are effective if you're not coming up with loose pucks or defending when they have the loose pucks."
Coaches all around the NHL say the same things, of course. But the Hurricanes (2-6-3) believe that success, for them, will be a product borne more of tough, gritty, grinding work than artistic play-making or their big stars making spectacular goals.
It was a collective effort, on both ends of the ice, that put them in the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, they say. It will take the same to end the losing, they now insist.
"It should be a simple part of the game: You have to beat the guy who has the puck," forward Scott Walker said. "You have to have the will to do it. It's a competitiveness but it's a will thing - how bad you want it.
"Last year, the second part of the year, we wanted it. It's like we're waiting for someone else to do it - go down and do the defensive work or score the goal."
In a 5-2 loss Wednesday to the St. Louis Blues, the Hurricanes had a 36-18 edge in shots and got power-play goals from Walker and Joe Corvo. But the Blues led 3-1 after the first period and 4-1 after two, converting Carolina mistakes and making the most of their scoring chances.
"I just thought our close-quarter fight wasn't good enough," Maurice said. "It's not with this group of men, and it's not a matter of them not wanting to be in it. They just position themselves physically, and mentally, with the idea 'I'm going to strip this puck and go the other way and break this thing open, and then I can feel good about myself.'
"We have to respect the other team more. There are times when the best you can do for your hockey club is put somebody on their butt, and we have to be prepared to do that."
The Hurricanes still are struggling to score, ranking 26th in the NHL in goals per game (2.27). Eric Staal, from whom much is expected, has only three goals in 11 games and had one shot on goal against the Blues. But nearly everyone appears to be pressing.
"When a guy's relaxed and confident, his stick feels like a 2-by-4," Maurice said. "I think what we're dealing with here is group confidence."
Team captain Rod Brind'Amour said the lack of goals can be wearing, especially when it seems "Every time you make a mistake it seems like it's in your net."
"Then you get a little down," he said. "When you're not scoring goals, every goal seems like a lot to come back from, when realistically it's not. In the past, we were a pretty good comeback team."
The Canes, playing their first home game in two weeks, seemed too easily deflated when the Blues took a 1-0 lead in the first.
"We can't get too uptight when we get scored on and let that bleed into our game," Brind'Amour said. "That shouldn't be an indication of whether we're playing well or not - whether we're scoring or getting scored on.
"We have to just stick with our program and not get flustered. We seem to have been doing that. It shouldn't affect the team game."
To be sure, there are other problems being addressed: puck-handling mistakes in the Canes' zone, allowing opponents to quickly follow one score with another, a tendency to think offense first or get too cute with the puck at times.
After the loss to the Blues, defenseman Niclas Wallin said the Canes needed to stick "to shooting the puck and driving the net and not trying these fancy plays."
"We had too many three-on-twos, two-on-ones coming back at us because we're trying to do the fancy stuff," he said.
On the plus side, the Hurricanes are 11th in the league on the penalty kill and have scored power-play goals in each of the last four games. While penalties have been a continuing issue, Carolina had just one minor against the Blues and killed it off.
The Hurricanes have not won on the road this season (0-4-2) and play Saturday in Philadelphia. But after that, they have seven of the next 10 games at home.
The Canes also are getting closer to full strength. Forward Erik Cole, out since Oct. 3 with a leg fracture, practiced Thursday and could play this weekend, Maurice said. Defenseman Tim Gleason, who has missed the past three games with an upper-body injury, also returned to practice and may be back next week.
Tuomo Ruutu has one game remaining on his three-game suspension and will be in the lineup for Sunday's game against the San Jose Sharks at the RBC Center.
"Confidence is the biggest factor," forward Chad LaRose said. "You can be strong, you can be healthy, but if your confidence isn't there it's tough. We just have to pull ourselves out of it as a team."
And start winning games.
"Winning is a cure-all to everything," Brind'Amour said. "We've got to turn the page. Whether you win or lose, the next day you have to come prepare yourself to go again."
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