RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes are losing players to injury.
The Canes are losing games and have lost their lead in the NHL’s Southeast Division.
But what the Canes can’t afford is to lose their way as a hockey team. Not with just 18 games remaining in the regular season.
As Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said Friday, despite an energy-sapping five-game winless streak, his team is 15-13-2 and remains in the thick of things – still solidly positioned to challenge the front-running Winnipeg Jets in the division and to secure a playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
“If you look at the big picture, we’re down the stretch (of the season), we get a break (in the schedule) and we’re in the playoff picture,” Muller said. “We’re there. There’s areas we’re really happy about and there’s areas we can get better at, but we’re in it. It’s where you want to be.
“If you said at the start of the season this team is going to be in a dogfight with everyone, that’s pretty much what the majority projected. And we are.”
The Hurricanes were eighth in the East before Friday’s games with 32 points. They also learned Friday they will have to play the next week to 10 days without goalie Dan Ellis, who was injured late in Thursday’s game against the New Jersey Devils.
Attempting to make a play, Ellis said he kicked his left leg with his right skate, causing a cut below the kneecap that required 17 stitches. Ellis said he was fortunate he did not lacerate a ligament or vein, and Muller said, “Thank goodness it wasn’t any deeper, for his own good.”
Carolina already has lost No. 1 goalie Cam Ward to a knee sprain suffered March 3 and should be out the rest of the regular season.
Defenseman Justin Faulk also has a sprained knee. Faulk, injured Tuesday, will be sidelined up to four weeks.
Two other injured defensemen, Joe Corvo and Bobby Sanguinetti, could return within the next week or so.
But injuries are only a part of the Canes’ recent slide. They’re 7-8 at home. Their five-on-five production has slowed. Their power play has shown some signs of life – Jeff Skinner scored Thursday and the Canes have two power-play goals in the past two games – but needs more work. They need to be tougher in their own zone.
The Canes have scored four goals in the past four games where they’ve been outscored 14-4. Against the Devils, they had 11 shots in the first period, then just three in the second and four in the third in the 4-1 loss.
Muller, clearly angry after the game, said he had some players who were “piggybacking.” No names were mentioned, but the Canes have a real need for secondary scoring and can’t keep relying on the top line of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty.
After five games in eight days, the Hurricanes are off until Tuesday against division-leading Winnipeg – a rarity of a break in the NHL’s condensed season.
General manager Jim Rutherford said Friday the break comes at a good time in that Canes appear to be a team that “has run out of energy.”
“We’re hopeful the few extra days off can get us energized and get us back to playing good hockey,” Rutherford said.
The NHL trade deadline is April 3 and Rutherford said the Canes continue to look for a depth defenseman.
The Hurricanes do have forward Tuomo Ruutu back in the lineup – a needed pick-me-up. Ruutu played his first game of the season Thursday after undergoing hip surgery in December.
Forward Chad LaRose, out the past 10 games with a concussion, returned to practice Friday as the Hurricanes reassigned forward Riley Nash to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL.
“You have to make the best of the situation,” defenseman Jay Harrison said. “We also have to take the opportunity to rest – refocus and come back to the rink extremely hungry.”
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