RALEIGH — A month ago today, after trading away five players, Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford sat on a podium at the RBC Center and said he expected his team to remain competitive, to win games, to stay in the fight.
"As long as we keep that same work ethic and work together as a team, we should be able to compete very well down the stretch," Rutherford said that day.
There were skeptics. The Canes had won six straight games and 10 of 12 before the mass exodus on the league's March 3 trade deadline. In addition to the players dealt that day, Rutherford already had traded veteran center Matt Cullen and defenseman Niclas Wallin.
Then there was goaltender Cam Ward. At the time, he had been sidelined a month with a back problem, his return indefinite.
"But I'm very proud of the way the team has responded in a difficult situation," Rutherford said in a recent interview.
The Hurricanes, who face the New Jersey Devils tonight at the RBC Center, have gone 8-5-3 since the trade deadline. Had they been able to hold on to a one-goal lead in the final eight seconds of regulation Thursday in Ottawa, they would have a ninth win.
A 4-3 shootout loss to the Senators cost the Canes a point they could not afford to give up. With 76 points and four games remaining in the regular season, the best they can manage is an 84-point season.
A look at the Eastern Conference standings shows that a 4-0 finish likely would not be enough to crash the top eight and reach the playoffs again. But the Canes, as Rutherford put it, did make it "interesting" - certainly for their fans.
"The team has done exactly what he asked them to do," coach Paul Maurice said.
The Hurricanes (33-35-10) have never been able to get out from under the 14-game winless streak in October and November. It has hung over the team like a dark cloud all season, and in the end should prove insurmountable.
But the Canes are 23-12-3 since Jan. 1. They've done it with an ever-changing lineup, with an influx of players from the Albany River Rats of the AHL.
"In the second half of the season, with the changeover in players and with the guys we've had injured, we did not know how it would work out," Rutherford said. "We made a number of changes and turned to younger players.
"Our record in the second half is probably what we expected from this team this season. The problem is, you play 82 games."
Maurice received a three-year contract after guiding the team to the Eastern Conference finals last season. But given the long winless streak and stumbling start, there were times this season when one had to wonder how strong his job security might be moving forward, especially after the Hurricanes cut their financial ties to Peter Laviolette.
Laviolette, who coached the Canes to the 2006 Stanley Cup, was fired last season but was still being paid by Carolina until being hired Dec. 4 by the Philadelphia Flyers.
"Not to get too public about all this, but I don't believe our early struggles were because of coaching," Rutherford said. "Certainly the coach, like myself and the players, have to take responsibility. But some things were not necessarily in Paul's hands.
"To keep the team together, to make the changes necessary ... I think the coaching staff has done a good job."
Chad LaRose and Erik Cole returned from injuries after the trade deadline. Brandon Sutter continued to develop into one of the team's most dependable players.
Manny Legace and Justin Peters were solid in net. The players called up from Albany have done their part and contributed after defensemen Tim Gleason and Alex Picard and forward Tuomo Ruutu were lost to injuries.
Ward returned this week, looking sharp, winning his first two starts. He should be in goal tonight against the Devils.
Playing the Devils will be a reminder of last year, of all the thrills and excitement their first-round playoff series provided last April. But there are some rewards, Legace said, in this strange, trying season.
"There's so much heart on this team that you can see why they won a Cup here," Legace said. "The leadership in the room just wouldn't let it go. We've been battling every night. It's been beautiful to watch."
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