Canes seem to be back on track

calexander@newsobserver.comNovember 25, 2011 

Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice calls them small steps, and small they have been.

But necessary steps. And, Maurice and the Canes hope, in the right direction.

After losing six of seven games, all in regulation and some by an embarrassing margin, Maurice asked his team to be more disciplined defensively. The Canes were one of the NHL's worst in goals allowed and shots against, a troubling trend that had Maurice's job in jeopardy and the Canes' season possibly near implosion.

A 2-1-1 record in the past four games is an improvement but not a dramatic turnaround, by any means, and the 4-3 shootout loss Wednesday to the Montreal Canadiens was disappointing. The Hurricanes say four games isn't enough to say a team identity -- a gritty, defense-first style -- has been formed.

"I think we need a few more games to make it really sink in, but I think we've seen how it can be effective," defenseman Bryan Allen said Wednesday.

For the Canes the tipping point was the 4-0 loss in Montreal last week. Maurice said the last 10 minutes of the second period were "the poorest hockey we've ever played," and the coaches huddled on the plane ride back that night to talk things over and prepare for practice the next day.

"It was all sliding downhill and we were neck-deep," Maurice said. "We had to tilt it."

Allen said not much was said among the players on the plane but most sensed changes would be coming.

"(Maurice) said that game was almost like rock bottom for us," Allen said. "We couldn't keep going the same way.

"It's hard in those situations. As a player you have no idea what's going to happen. You can be traded, waived, whatever."

At practice the next day, Maurice told the Canes they would seek to create more offense through better overall team defense. The forecheck would not be as aggressive, but that would leave forwards in better position to get back defensively, reducing the odd-man rushes that were hurting the Hurricanes.

"Regardless of what we were doing, the most important thing was that we came together and had one idea," Maurice said.

But more offense through defense?

"If I was 17, 18 or 19 and the coach said you play better defense and can get better offense, I would say no, that's not what's going to happen," forward Jussi Jokinen said. "But I've been around long enough to understand that's exactly what happens and that's what we've been able to do. In this league you have to keep the other team to two goals or less to win constantly."

The Hurricanes lost to the Buffalo Sabres 1-0 last Friday, then topped the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 on Sunday and Philadelphia Flyers 4-2 on Monday. After generating just 26, 20 and 25 shots in their previous three games, the Canes had 34, 41 and 31 shots.

"I thought it was very smart what (Maurice) did," Allen said. "He took all the pressure off trying to score goals and get offense. There are so many guys who want to score goals and contribute. What he did was took that focus away and said let's focus on not allowing any goals. Play good without the puck, play good in our own end and focus on being good in front of our goaltenders."

Goalie Brian Boucher faced just 20 shots against Buffalo and Cam Ward faced 25 against the Leafs. The Flyers had 32 shots and the Canadiens 34, including three in the overtime.

The Canes jumped to an early 2-0 lead Wednesday with goals from Jiri Tlusty and Anthony Stewart but at times were too loose defensively. Maurice switched lines and the defensive pairings during the game. He split up Allen and Tim Gleason, putting Allen with Jamie McBain and Gleason with Tomas Kaberle, while sticking with the pairing of Jay Harrison and rookie Justin Faulk.

"They have to figure out a way to do it on nights when it's not easy for them," Maurice said. "It can't just be (that you) throw your hands up and say, 'Well, we'll play harder defensively the next night.'"

Defenseman Joni Pitkanen, sidelined the past seven games with a foot injury, returned to practice Thursday and could play Sunday in Ottawa, Maurice said.

The Hurricanes (8-11-4) host the Winnipeg Jets (8-9-4) today at the RBC Center.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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