RALEIGH — Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller wasn't overly concerned about goalie Cam Ward's meltdown at the bench two weeks ago in Winnipeg.
Ward was showing his emotions, showing how much he cared about winning, Muller said at the time.
But Muller said Thursday that team captain Eric Staal might have taken on too much of the blame Wednesday night when he said he was the one primarily responsible for the Canes' 4-3 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.
"He does not have to feel that he has to carry the whole team on his shoulders," Muller said. "That's tough on anybody. He just needs to keep playing hard, and when he does that, the special plays will come naturally."
Anyone wondering how the stress and tension of losing is affecting the Hurricanes needs to look no further than Ward and Staal. The two have been Stanley Cup champions. They have been All-Stars and have long-term financial security with the team. They've also fought through tough times before.
But Ward erupted with an uncharacteristic fury after being pulled in the second period of the Canes' Dec. 9 game in Winnipeg. He fired out an expletive or two, later saying he was "venting."
Ward responded with solid work in net against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Florida Panthers - beating the Canucks and losing to both the Leafs and Panthers in overtime. He allowed four goals on 19 shots against the Coyotes, the last a four-on-four goal by Lauri Korpikoski midway through the third period.
A team player
Moments after the Coyotes game came the mea culpa by a frustrated Staal, who was on the ice for the last three Coyotes goals.
"It was one of those nights where I need to step up and I didn't and let the game slip away," Staal said. "The leaders on the team have got to step up and make some plays and instill some confidence in the team and get some mojo going."
Muller can only hope Staal now will back up his words with actions. After producing three goals and seven assists in an eight-game stretch, Staal has gone pointless the past three games. He's minus-21 for the season.
"Eric has got to understand that he does not have to be the one guy making a difference or the guy making the play of the game in every game," Muller said Thursday. "He is a part of the team. He just has to keep pushing. We need him playing hard and doing his part."
The Hurricanes (10-19-6) face the Ottawa Senators tonight at the RBC Center before the team's Christmas break begins. Staal has a goal and assist in two games this season against the Senators, who topped the Canes 3-2 in a shootout Oct. 25 at the RBC Center and 4-3 on Nov. 27 in Ottawa.
Mental toughness and energy
The Senators will be finishing up a back-to-back, having hosted the Florida Panthers on Thursday night. The Canes did not practice Thursday, holding a team meeting and then off-ice workouts.
"We looked at some X's and O's, looked at a couple of mistakes we need to correct," Muller said. "It's a process every day. Look at the good and the bad and move on.
"We continue to let some situations, when they turn against us, affect us too much. When (the Coyotes) got their second goal, we dropped off our level of play a little. We need to be better and we will be better."
Muller said center Tim Brent, who missed the Coyotes game with a lower-body injury, was feeling better Thursday and might be able to play tonight. Riley Nash, recalled Wednesday on an emergency basis from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL, made his NHL debut against Phoenix and had 13 minutes of ice time.
Nash began the game on the fourth line but was at center on a line with Staal and Drayson Bowman in the third period. He also was called on by Muller to take key faceoffs in the third but lost four straight draws during the final three minutes, 32 seconds of regulation.
Muller said after the game he put Nash with Staal and Bowman to add energy to the line, adding, "Maybe Nash can play a little conservative there and let (Staal) and Bowman take off. ... I took a chance and just went for it."