Losing streak lives

Canes feel the skid is out of control

Staff writerNovember 13, 2009 

— To the Carolina Hurricanes, a 13-game winless streak seems like a recurring nightmare, as if taking on a life of its own.

The players are grumpy. The coaches are grumpy. Canes' fans are angry, antsy.

"It's tough to sleep, to do anything," team captain Rod Brind'Amour said Thursday. "It weighs on everybody. You feel like you're letting down a lot of people, and that weighs on you, too."

But what about going 30 games without a win? That's what the Winnipeg Jets did in the 1980-81 season, a winless stretch that's the longest in NHL history.

Morris Lukowich was a winger for the Jets that season, and what he remembers about that streak - and how he and his teammates suffered but persevered - should resonate with the Hurricanes.

"First of all, I'm amazed Carolina is going through that with the team they have," Lukowich said Thursday. "A streak like that is a strange phenomenon that happens. It does take on a life of its own when all you think is 'Losing streak, losing streak, losing streak.'

"You try to stay positive and think of every game as a new opportunity. And as soon as something goes sideways, as soon as something bad happens, it's 'Oh, here we go again,' and players' games go south and you can't stop the landslide."

The Hurricanes feel like a 13-game skid is a landslide. It's one game shy of the franchise record set in 1992 as the Canes play the New York Islanders tonight - on Friday the 13th, no less - at the RBC Center.

In the last few weeks, owner Peter Karmanos has offered his opinion on what's wrong. General manager Jim Rutherford has weighed in and taken the blame. The players have had their say and are trying to stay upbeat, believing good things still are possible.

But perhaps they should heed the words of Lukowich, 53, who operates a hockey camp in Calgary, Alberta.

"There has to be an attitude shift," he said. "In Winnipeg that year, we went into games thinking it was an opportunity not to lose. The prevalent part of that statement is 'not' and 'lose' - two negatives.

"We'd be ahead in games and start to think 'how are we not going to lose this game' is a just a lousy attitude to have. When you're thinking 'how are we not going to lose,' the body tightens up and the reflexes slow.

"Our coach would say something like 'Don't take any more dumb penalties.' So we'd take one dumber than the last one. With that negative attitude, everything manifests in a way to lose."

The Jets, then in their second NHL season, finally won a game. The streak that began Oct. 19, 1980, ended on Dec. 23 when they edged the Colorado Rockies 5-4 in Winnipeg.

"It was a close game, and it was thrilling," Lukowich said. "We had lost our coach because of [the streak], and the next year we made personnel changes and had one of the best turnaround seasons in NHL history.

"The one thing we identified in the streak was the changes that needed to be made for the next year. We made those changes and it helped us."

The Jets, 9-57-14 in the 1980-81 season, were 33-33-14 the next year. The franchise relocated in 1996 and became the Phoenix Coyotes.

Now 2-12-3 after a 5-2 loss Wednesday to the Los Angeles Kings, the Hurricanes are four points out of 29th place in the NHL.

Asked Thursday if he believes losing becomes a habit, Canes coach Paul Maurice said, "I completely agree with it. And the other quote that goes with it is the definition of insanity: that you do the same things over and over again when they're not working."

Greg Dale, a sports psychology professor at Duke, said the Hurricanes may be like many teams that fall into losing ways.

"Once you lose a few in a row, the focus is on 'have to win' as an outcome," he said. "You focus on having to win the next game rather than focusing on the process of playing well. In most cases, the more you 'have to win,' the less likely it is to happen."

Dale, the director of mental training for Duke athletics, said over-analysis often can be a problem for athletes and lead to losing.

"You don't want to make it too complicated," he said. "It's like a baseball hitter in a batting slump who's thinking too much. You need to do the things that come natural to you and keep it simple.

"These players are obviously good at what they do and have shown in the past they can play well. When they did play well, what did it look like, what did it feel like? They need to get back to that, and whether ahead or behind stick to it, whether it's being aggressive or being relaxed and having fun."

The Hurricanes have lost their last seven games in regulation, two short of the franchise record set from Feb. 19-March 8, 1983. They have won just once in regulation this season, beating the Florida Panthers 7-2 on Oct. 9 for their last win.

The Hurricanes have scored just eight goals in their last six games - going 0-for-23 on the power play - and 23 in the streak.

The Hurricanes are without injured center Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward, and had forwards Stephane Yelle and Scott Walker leave Wednesday's game with injuries. Maurice wasn't sure Thursday about their availability tonight but said it's possible they could play.

The Hurricanes placed Tim Conboy, who has been used at forward and on defense, on waivers Thursday.

"It takes strong leadership," Lukowich said. "Someone has to step up and say, 'It stops right here.' There needs to a strong core and be a collective leadership that says, 'We're better than this, we know we're better than this, so let's focus on what winning looks like.'

"Once you do that ..."

Bad streaks and landslides end.

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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