RALEIGH -- Give him a few weeks, another five or 10 games, and Kirk Muller really believes he could get the Carolina Hurricanes into the playoffs. They’re playing that well. They’re just going to run out of time.
“I do,” Muller said Thursday. “I do. I really do.”
The Hurricanes have shown over the past three months that there was no reason they couldn’t make the playoffs with the players assembled, at least once Tomas Kaberle was dispatched elsewhere.
It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from the portion of the season after a team has been effectively eliminated, but at the very least, the way the Canes have played under Muller passes the eye test. The way Eric Staal has played, the way Cam Ward has played, the way Justin Faulk and Jiri Tlusty and Tim Brent have played, it would have been enough.
This may not be the most talented team in the NHL, and it may have zero margin for error when it comes to making the playoffs, but it’s clear now that there was enough here to get there.
“We’re sticking to the game plan and everybody is buying into the game plan,” defenseman Tim Gleason said. “Those are two huge things.”
That didn’t happen right away, and it took a while for the Hurricanes to grasp what Muller wanted and to see results from playing his way. But the results are there now, which only makes the delay in making a change all the more tragic.
The baffling loyalty of Peter Karmanos and Jim Rutherford to Paul Maurice has once again cost them millions of dollars -- and cost this market the fun of another trip to the playoffs.
If only Maurice hadn’t been brought back after last season’s colossal failure; if only Muller had been brought in a week or two earlier, when there was still time to turn things around; if only. Alas, the damage was done, and now the Hurricanes are running out of time.
It’s easy to put too much stock into late runs, which all too often fail to carry over to the fall. The Hurricanes are hoping, as was the case in the spring of 2004 and the fall of 2005, after the season lost to the lockout, the tone set in the spring will be the tone taken in training camp.
As noted in this space many times, the similarities between the circumstances that led to winning the Stanley Cup and these circumstances -- new coach, new attitude, new labor agreement -- have not been lost on the players.
“When ‘Lavi’ (Peter Laviolette) came in, we had a lockout between, but there was an attitude,” Staal said. “We knew that he really wanted to push. It was an adjustment for a lot of guys, but we had a lot of new faces that came in the next year and the ones who already knew were ready. That can definitely be an asset for us next year.”
Still, the way the Hurricanes are playing, it’s hard to stomach waiting another year. They’re one point away from being eliminated from playoff contention, which will probably happen tonight. Time has run out.
“If we kept rolling along here, there’s no quit in our team at all,” Muller said.
What Muller has done with this team is nothing less than amazing. All he needed was a little more time.
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