RALEIGH — Enough was enough.
The Carolina Hurricanes had lost three straight games. Playing Tuesday night in Toronto, they led 3-2 after the first period, but the Maple Leafs dominated the second period to force a 3-3 tie. A fourth loss seemed possible, perhaps probable.
That's when Hurricanes president and general manager Jim Rutherford left his seat at the Air Canada Centre and made a rare visit to the locker room. And during that second intermission, he had a few choice words for the team.
"My patience had run out," Rutherford said Thursday. "It's not something I like to do. I can't remember the last time I did it. I usually address the players two to five times a year, but never during games.
"But my frustration level was high. We couldn't keep playing the way we were, expecting [goalie] Cam [Ward] to keep us in games long enough for us to try and win them."
His message delivered, the Canes responded by getting a go-ahead goal from Patrick Dwyer to beat the Leafs 4-3. The following night, Carolina got its second win in a row, a 4-0 road victory over the Ottawa Senators,
"He wasn't too happy, and that got the fire in everybody's gut," Staal said of Rutherford's surprise visit to the locker room. "That doesn't happen often, but when it does it'll get you moving, and it did."
In early December, Rutherford had said it would be a critical month for the Canes if they expected to be in Stanley Cup playoff position. The three losses had dropped Carolina to 15-15-4, and the Canes faced the possibility of closing out the month with a five-game slide with potential losses in Toronto and Ottawa.
"It was the end of December, and I was not satisfied with our play as a team," Rutherford said. "We had some guys who were playing well, especially Cam and Eric [Staal], our two best players, and we had some other guys who had been along for the ride.
"That was not acceptable, not if we wanted to be a playoff team. Something needed to be said before it dragged on too long and we lost a few more games and fell below .500."
Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice there was no danger of anyone confusing Rutherford's message Tuesday night.
"When the GM comes to the room to give a state of the union, he has everyone's attention. The GM has the power to move people out of the locker room. Once in a while, those in the locker room need to know when the boss isn't happy," Maurice said.
"Some players who were capable of changing their play did that. Some took on more of a leadership role. We got that veteran push."
Rutherford said he had breakfast Wednesday with Staal, the team captain, and winger Chad LaRose, seeking feedback on his locker-room visit.
"When you do those things, it's not always the right thing or wrong thing, and you don't always say the right thing," Rutherford said. "I asked, 'Where did I go wrong?'
"Eric said, 'It's the same thing I said just prior to you coming in.' They thought it was appropriate. They thought it was good for the team to hear another voice saying those things."
Ward had 37 saves and Zach Boychuk a pair of goals Wednesday as Carolina shut out the Senators to finish with a 7-4-1 record in December - 2-2 at home, 5-2-1 on the road. Ward, who earned his 14th career shutout, was 6-3-1, with a 2.05 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in December.
"We've put ourselves in position to stay in the mix of playoff teams," Rutherford said. "That's what we wanted to do. I do feel we can play better than we have played, but all in all we've put ourselves in a position to go into the second half [of the season] and battle for the playoffs."
For the Hurricanes, January begins with a game Saturday against the New Jersey Devils at the RBC Center. The Devils flatlined during December but are hoping for a second-half resurgence.
"Now we're right back in a good position," Maurice said. "We could have been in a dangerous place to slide."
Canes notes: Forward Jussi Jokinen suffered a lower-body injury during the Hurricanes' road win over Toronto on Tuesday and missed the following night's game against Ottawa. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen also sat out Wednesday's game, Rutherford said, because he did not feel well after the win over the Leafs and could have the flu.
Forward Jon Matsumoto and defenseman Bryan Rodney, who were recalled from the Charlotte Checkers (AHL) for the Ottawa game, were reassigned Thursday to the Checkers. They could be brought back up for Saturday's home game against the Devils, Rutherford said.
Rutherford said he has been impressed with the all-round play of forward Zach Boychuk, who was recalled Dec. 17 following Jiri Tlusty's upper-body injury. Boychuk replaced Tlusty on the fourth line, but with Jokinen out, Boychuk was used on Brandon Sutter's line, assisting on Dwyer's winning goal against the Leafs and then scoring twice in the first period against the Senators.
"If he continues to play like that, he'll only be visiting Charlotte and not playing in Charlotte," Rutherford said. "It's still too early to tell, but he may have the opportunity to stay. We'll make the roster adjustments after [Jokinen and Tlusty] get back."
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