It's time for Canes to play

Carolina opens long-awaited abbreviated campaign on road against Florida

calexander@newsobserver.comJanuary 19, 2013 

— The collective bargaining agreement has been signed and the NHL lockout a fresh but fast-fading memory.

No more talk, thankfully, about hockey-related revenue, make-whole, Donald Fehr or Gary Bettman.

The NHL promo says, “It’s time.” And guess what? For the Carolina Hurricanes and 29 other NHL teams, it is.

“It’s go time – finally,” Canes forward Tim Brent said Friday.

The Hurricanes will get the long-awaited season going on the road Saturday against the Florida Panthers. It’s the first of 48 games, the start of a condensed regular season that will make, say, a three-game winning streak feel like only a respite and a three-game losing streak seem disastrous.

The Canes players, after a final training-camp practice Friday at PNC Arena, packed up quickly, as if eager to get on the charter flight to Florida.

“I’m ready and I think the guys are confident and ready to get this thing started,” center Jordan Staal said. “Each game matters and will seem more important. It should be exciting.”

For the first time since he entered the NHL, Staal won’t be wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater. Traded by the Pens to Carolina in June, he has waited month after month for this moment, enduring the frustration of the long lockout.

On Saturday night, Jordan Staal will join his brother, Eric, in the Canes’ lineup for the first time. Each will center lines as the Hurricanes look to avoid a fourth consecutive season without postseason play.

Canes coach Kirk Muller said Friday he would keep Zach Boychuk at left wing on Eric Staal’s line for the opener. Alexander Semin, who has look strong and sharp in training camp, will be on the right side.

Jordan Staal’s line will have Zac Dalpe on the right wing opposite Jeff Skinner. Jussi Jokinen will center the third line, with Jiri Tlusty and Chad LaRose on the wings.

The Hurricanes on Friday made a few roster moves, calling up center Jeremy Welsh from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL and assigning defenseman Ryan Murphy to his junior team, the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. Forward Tim Wallace, who cleared NHL waivers Friday, was reassigned to the Checkers.

Muller said he might wait until Saturday’s morning skate – after the Panthers’ skate – before making a final decision on his fourth-line forwards. With seven defensemen still on the roster, Muller also must decide on a healthy scratch for the opener.

Muller said Thursday he wasn’t sure if Boychuk and Dalpe, who both have played well in Charlotte this season, would stay on the top two lines. Tlusty, for example, was on Eric Staal’s line at left wing late last season and early in training camp, and played in his native Czech Republic during the lockout on a line with Jaromir Jagr and Tomas Plekanec.

But Muller’s going to roll with the two young guys – at least in the opener.

“I just feel like they bring young energy,” Muller said. “The fact they’ve played half a season has to be a bonus. ... I think it’s a good time and they deserve to get that shot.”

The Canes have had slow starts in other seasons but Eric Staal recently joked, “We always play well in January.” True enough, but the Hurricanes – like almost every team – need to come out strong this January.

There will be questions to be answered, and quickly. Is their five-on-five game consistent? Are their special teams improved? Can they be more efficient in their own zone and cut down the goals against?

The Canes were terrible in overtime last season, when Muller said they would be too impatient at times. Can they win those games and pick up those valuable points?

More than anything, it will be an endurance test.

“It’s going to be a push,” defenseman Justin Faulk said. “Forty-eight games in 99 days is a push.”

Brent called it “sprint to the finish” and added, “That’s what our mindset is going to be and has to be.”

It’s go time.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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