DeCock

Coach to Canes: Have fun

Staff WriterNovember 30, 2011 

Hours before he made his debut as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, long before the puck dropped on Tuesday night's 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers, Kirk Muller already accomplished something that hadn't been seen in a while in these parts.

He gathered the team around him at the end of the morning skate and laid down his expectations for the night: Play hard, have fun. And he told them something else: There were about 100 million people in the world who had no idea they were playing hockey tonight, so don't take it too seriously.

Something strange happened when he was finished. Players skated away with smiles on their faces - some chuckling, a few even out-and-out laughing.

"It was a good feeling," Hurricanes forward Chad LaRose acknowledged afterward.

Good feelings. Smiles. Laughter. Wins. Those four commodities have been in short supply for the Hurricanes for too long. Muller took care of the first three in less than a half hour. The fourth is going to take some time.

The Hurricanes held the Panthers to two shots in the first period and had the game's first three power plays ... but failed to score, and Florida naturally scored on its first chance. Not as many smiles in evidence then, but it took Jeff Skinner less than a minute to answer, and the kid smiled broadly.

And then, to give up the winner with three minutes left after a Tomas Kaberle error, Shawn Matthias bouncing it in off Cam Ward - that was a killer. That's just the way it may be for a while around here. Everyone is adjusting. There will be good times and bad. Real change is a long way away.

"He has to be patient," said former Montreal Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau, who gave Muller his first NHL coaching job in 2006. "You don't turn teams like that on a dime. It takes a little time. They may go on a tear for five or 10 days, but it may not last. He just has to be patient, be himself."

With waiver claim Andreas Nodl in the lineup to add some of the speed Muller underlined Monday and Rod Brind'Amour behind the bench instead of Tom Barrasso, who watched from above, Muller's already making changes.

For now, these are small tweaks. Bigger alterations are probably a week away; the Hurricanes have consecutive off days next Tuesday and Wednesday, not much time, but enough for a quickie midseason training camp.

Tuesday, it was simple stuff. Play hard, have fun and worry about the rest later. Which is exactly what former Hurricanes forward Ray Whitney, a close friend and ex-teammate of Muller's now playing for the Phoenix Coyotes, expected to see from the new coach.

"He's got a pretty good idea of the league, especially the Eastern Conference," Whitney said. "They're going to play a fun game. My feeling, talking to him, is that he's learned over the years that if you have the right goalie, you can build around that. Cam Ward, in my mind, is one of the top three or four in the league. Kirk will build around him. ...

"He thinks it's a privilege to play in the NHL and he wants his guys to work hard, just like he did. He was a good player, put up some points, had an all-around game, but more than that he enjoyed his time in the NHL, and he wants his players to enjoy the game and have fun."

The Hurricanes didn't have much fun Tuesday night, but in a mere 24 hours, Muller's arrival has turned a grim, dour atmosphere into one that suddenly feels bathed in bright light. Smiles are a start. The wins will have to come next.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or (919) 829-8947

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