RALEIGH — There should be two grumpy, antsy, emotionally charged teams in PNC Arena on Monday night.
The Carolina Hurricanes have lost their past two games. The Pittsburgh Penguins have lost the past three.
"We're striving to be one of the top teams in the East," Canes captain Eric Staal said after practice Sunday. "We didn't come in happy today."
But as much as the Canes (4-4-3) want to win, they realize a faster, stronger start to games is imperative. They also have a plan for doing it: harder but smarter play.
Staal said the Canes have been overanxious at times in the opening period, and that's hurt. So have first-period penalties. There's also the matter of maintaining the proper positioning in the offensive zone, keeping a third forward high if a defenseman pinches down in the zone to prevent the other teams from countering.
"They're creating havoc and creating chances that way," Staal said. "So it's about being smarter in our game and not beating ourselves in certain positioning on the ice. We have to be smarter with our play and execute when we need to."
There's a fine line to be tread, forward Tuomo Ruutu said, between being aggressive in the early going but not overly aggressive to the point careless mistakes are made.
"I think you can be both, aggressive and smarter," Ruutu said. "I don't think we have been physical enough, right from the beginning. It's been more like hoping to get a three-on-two or that two-on-one (rushes).
"You want to be aggressive, but in the right way. Finish your checks, win your one-on-one battles, those things, but at the same time be smart. So you need to find a good balance."
The Hurricanes are 2-4-2 this season when opponents have scored the first goal of the game. In the past two games, road losses to Minnesota and Colorado, the Canes trailed 2-0 after the first period.
"It's so tough to score in this league," Ruutu said. "And, you know, some teams they change the way they play after scoring the first one or second one. They play more defensive.
"We don't have to always score on the first shifts. But if we can score the first one, they can't just defend and wait for the mistakes."
The Pens' losing streak began with a 1-0 loss to the Avalanche in Pittsburgh. The New York Islanders rallied late for a 4-3 win, and the Toronto Maple Leafs topped the Pens 4-1 on Saturday.
The Penguins (7-4-0) still lead the NHL's Metropolitan Division with 14 points, three points ahead of the Canes and Islanders after Saturday's games.
"We're looking at it as we've lost two and they're going to be hungry and not very happy. We're not," Canes coach Kirk Muller said Sunday.
While the Canes put in a long, intense practice at PNC Arena, it also was a day of receiving some medical updates and reports.
Goalie Cam Ward (lower-body injury) and forward Jeff Skinner (upper-body) each were scheduled for MRIs. Goalie Anton Khudobin (lower-body injury) skated before the team practice but only briefly, Muller said.
Defenseman Brett Bellemore (lower-body injury) tried to skate but was sore, Muller said. Forward Radek Dvorak (lower-body) did not skate.
On Khudobin, Muller said, "He tried (to skate) this morning. Didn't feel that great. So he's got a little work to do."
Muller said there was no timeframe for Khudobin, who has been out since Oct. 13, returning to practice.
Muller said Dvorak was a "question mark" for the Pens game. Skinner, the Canes' top scorer, may also be questionable.
Muller took a look at different line combinations Sunday, moving Nathan Gerbe to left wing on Eric Staal's line and Elias Lindholm to right wing on Jordan Staal's line. Winger Patrick Dwyer, who missed the past two games with an upper-body injury, was back at practice Sunday and on Riley Nash's line with Ruutu.
We've got to come out smarter and have a good first period where we play the game the right way and then we keep building as the game goes, Muller said. We need to play with the right intensity at the right spots."
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