Hurricanes try to figure out why they missed NHL playoffs

calexander@newsobserver.comApril 20, 2013 

In the second week of March, when the Carolina Hurricanes were leading the NHL’s Southeast Division, Jiri Tlusty received a call from his father.

Jiri Tlusty Sr. was in their native Czech Republic, excited about the Canes and making plans to come to the U.S.

“My dad was having a blast watching the games and said, ‘I’m going to shut down the farm and I’m going to come watch all the playoff games,’” Tlusty said Thursday.

The Tlusty farm will remain open. The Hurricanes, for the fourth straight season, won’t be in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Tlusty, like many of his teammates, is almost baffled by how quickly things turned for the worse this season, by how quickly and irretrievably the Canes fell.

Once 15-9-1, the Hurricanes are 17-24-3 after a 5-3 home loss against the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday night. They no longer have any hope of squeezing into the playoffs with a last-gasp push.

“The start of the season was amazing,” Tlusty said. “We can all question ourselves as to what happened. You go through the locker room and you see everyone, see so many great players. It’s just hard to believe we started the season like that and it slipped away like that.”

Many point to Cam Ward’s injury, which came March 3 in a road game at Florida. Ward, the Canes’ No. 1 goalie, suffered a third-degree knee sprain and was ruled out for remainder of the regular season.

“If you lose your No. 1 goaltender, that’s the hardest thing,” Tlusty said. “If you look at the NHL now, all the No. 1 goalies are playing well and it’s keeping (teams) winning.”

The injuries mounted. Defenseman Justin Faulk missed nine games in the past month with a knee injury. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen went down with a broken heel bone.

“We just weren’t able to overcome the injuries to the key guys that we lost,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said.

Initially, the Canes maintained their momentum with goalies Dan Ellis and Justin Peters, winning three of four games after Ward’s injury. But after a 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals – in a home game Carolina led 2-0 at one point – the Canes began to slide.

They lost at Tampa Bay. They 2-1 in a shootout on the road against the New York Rangers.

Then the bottom fell out. In 11 of the next 12 games, the Canes lost in regulation, gaining no points.

“There’s a lot of factors, but the games we’ve won in the past month or so, Justin Peters gave us three or four big stops,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. “That’s really what you expect from a No. 1 goalie. You don’t get it as consistently from your No. 2 or No. 3 goalie.

“So there’s no question losing the No. 1 goalie in this league is difficult. … And losing Faulk and losing key defensemen at different times.”

But it’s more than the injuries, Rutherford said. When teams are winning, he said, you often win games you don’t deserve to win.

“In a losing streak,” he said, “you lose games you don’t deserve to lose. We went through a period there where there were four games where the other team’s goalie was the (game’s) first star.”

That included Ottawa’s Craig Anderson, who was named the first star Tuesday as the Senators topped Carolina 3-2 at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa.

Not that everything hinges on the goaltenders. Rutherford said a top priority in the offseason will be “strengthening our defense group.”

“Whether it be a physical defenseman, a puck-moving defenseman, two puck-moving defensemen, whatever it is, those are things the management team and the coaching staff will discuss at the end of the year,” he said. “That’s an area it’s clear we need to make stronger.”

Another point of emphasis, Rutherford said, would be structuring of the forwards on the third and fourth lines to better complement the top two lines.

“For a team that will finish as bad as we will, we don’t have to do major overall changes,” he said. “We’ve got the good core players in place. But some of those core players we’re going to expect more from.”

Rutherford said a healthy Tuomo Ruutu would help the top six forwards. Ruutu had hip surgery in December and did not play until March 21.

In Thursday’s game at Winnipeg, Ruutu was arguably the Canes’ best player. He scored twice, going to the front of the net and taking some punishment to make plays.

“But everybody, individually, should look in the mirror and ask, ‘What can I do better?’” Ruutu said. “We need to remember this feeling before every game next year.”

The Hurricanes could be in position to select a “franchise player” in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Rutherford said. While the Canes won’t discuss their draft targets, nearly every NHL team would like to be able to pick up defenseman Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks, the No. 1-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting.

“We might add a good young player who could have as good a year as Jeff Skinner, or better,” Rutherford said.

Skinner was the franchise’s first Calder Trophy winner as NHL rookie of the year in 2010-2011 after scoring 31 goals.

The Hurricanes will need to bolster the power play, which has shown improvement late in the season. They need work on penalty killing. They need to be stronger around the net on both ends of the ice, and will need to be bigger.

The Canes will be in a different division next season. They will be with the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils.

They will be raising ticket prices next season. They also will be raising parking fees. They will need the added income, they say, to compete with the big spenders in their division.

Rutherford said the majority of the ticket holders he has talked with understand the Canes’ plight this season and the reasons for it.

“They’ll stick with us through thick and thin,” he said. “But everybody is the same, from the team to the fans. It’s been an awful thing to go through.

“But sometimes when you take a step back you take a big step forward. As disappointed and upset as we are today, in a matter of two months we’re going to start to feel optimistic about our direction.”

Rutherford recalled the Canes drafting Eric Staal second overall in 2003, adding, “I know where that led us to in pretty short order.”

That would be the Stanley Cup, in 2006.

“I’d like to think we’d have a chance to do that again,” Rutherford said.

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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