RALEIGH — Early in December, Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason surmised the team was still coming together and seeking a collective identity.
With the month fast coming to end, Gleason still hesitates to define the club.
"We've got some skill players and some players who are gritty, a mixture," Gleason said. "But I still don't know how you can describe us.
"We won four in a row and had a good feeling, then put ourselves back a bit. We need to be a team that limits mistakes. If we can concentrate on the things that make us successful, we can put a name on ourselves."
In other words, with the Canes (15-14-4) set to play the Washington Capitals (20-12-5) today (7 p.m. FSCR) at the RBC Center after a two-day Christmas break, honing the team's identity remains a work in progress.
"Obviously, we work extremely hard," goaltender Cam Ward said. "We're a little bit of a loose group that likes to have fun, but when you're a loose group you've also got to be focused from the drop of the puck, and that's one of the areas we can still improve upon.
"But we've shown we've been able to stick with it when we put our minds to it and are able to overcome some obstacles. When we face adversity, we can raise up."
For much of the season, the Canes have been stamped as a team that could not rally from behind in the third period to win games. Then they did it in back-to-back games this month, on the road against the Florida Panthers and Atlanta Thrashers.
Conversely, until Thursday the Hurricanes had not lost a game in regulation after scoring first, going 10-0-2. But then, after taking a 1-0 lead against the Montreal Canadiens on Chad LaRose's short-handed goal, Carolina went on to lose 3-2 to drop its second straight after a four-game winning streak.
"I can't tell you exactly the kind of game we're going to get," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "It's like Special Ops. They throw you into the jungle, and then you adapt to whatever you've got. We'll get out there and see what we can do.
"Part of that is we have players still developing into who they're going to be. That consistency sometimes comes from experience, where that guy steps out and says, 'This is my game, this is what I do in the NHL.' We still have some guys working their way into it."
Maurice conceded that "scoring does not come easily" for the Canes. LaRose's goal Thursday was the winger's first in 15 games. Patrick Dwyer has gone 14 games without a goal, and Jussi Jokinen is scoreless in the last 11.
Rookie forward Jeff Skinner's scoring production also has dipped. After notching six goals in his first 15 games, he has just two in his past 18 and none in the past eight.
Erik Cole now has scored twice in the past five games, and his goal late in the second period Thursday gave the Canes a short-lived 2-1 lead. Cole's recent surge also came, however, after a 13-game stretch in which the power forward had only one goal.
Maurice has constantly juggled his lines and did it again Thursday, moving Skinner off Staal's line and replacing him with LaRose.
For much of December, the Canes shored up their penalty killing. But the Tampa Bay Lightning scored on two of three power plays Monday in a 5-1 win, and the Canadiens scored two power-play goals late in the second period Thursday after Cole was called for a five-minute boarding major.
"Our penalty killing had gotten real strong there for about a month and has fallen off again," Maurice said.
The Hurricanes are 24th in the NHL in goals against, allowing 2.97 a game, and better penalty killing is a must for that to improve. So is a stronger, more aggressive defensive effort by everyone on the ice.
But overall consistency - in all three zones, in all areas of play - is something the Canes still must achieve.
"We know for the most part what our goaltender looks like when he's going," Maurice said. "You can identify that fairly early. And there are three or four guys who have been in the game a long time, and I can tell you five minutes into the game whether they're going or not.
"But then there's a lot of other guys where you say, 'He's playing great now, but we have to keep an eye on him.' There are some guys we have to stay with and not throw on the end of the bench when he has two bad shifts. We have to pump his tires, rub his back, kick his butt, whatever we've got to do to change wherever he's at right now. And they've been able to do that.
"So maybe we're just scrappy."
Maurice paused, giving it another thought.
"There's a good story here," he said. "We're on the younger side, and we've really had some adversity with some things in our schedule. I like this team, but I don't know that it's ever going to look easy."
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