Canes seek to play and win 'hard games'

calexander@newsobserver.comJanuary 15, 2014 

— Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller often talks about his team needing to play a “hard game” or “heavy game” to win.

But what does that mean?

“I think for us it has to be our identity,” center Jordan Staal said. “It’s when we’re playing hard, when we’re skating and tenacious on the forecheck, and just playing well away from the puck, without the puck.”

That’s the way the Calgary Flames played Monday against the Canes at PNC Arena. The visitors ended a three-game losing streak with a 2-0 victory.

“I thought our legs weren’t going last game, and our tenaciousness on the puck and hounding the puck wasn’t there,” Staal said. “Then when we did have the puck we didn’t execute well. When our game’s going those are the things we’re doing well.”

The Canes had it going last Thursday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They used their speed, handled the puck well, hounded it when they didn’t have it and played well defensively in a 6-1 victory.

One night later, their five-game winning streak ended with a 3-0 loss on the road against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Then, Calgary. Another shutout loss.

“They were a hard-working team,” Staal said of the Flames. “For the most part I don’t know if we were ready for it, but we definitely didn’t work as hard as they did.”

It was the first time since November 2012 that Carolina had been blanked in consecutive games. That’s just before Muller was hired.

“I didn’t think it was a case of our team getting outbattled,” defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “We did have a hard time getting a lot of (offensive) zone time, no question.

“We weren’t crisp on our breakouts and able to get through them like we would want. We had a difficult time keeping pucks in their zone. Their breakouts are just a rocket around the glass 95 percent of the time. I remember a half-dozen times we were on the forecheck and (the puck) came at me head-high and I really wasn’t able to keep it in.”

During one sequence late in the first period, Jordan Staal took a shot that goalie Karri Ramo knocked away. Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman controlled the puck and chipped it off the glass and past Hainsey at the blue line.

Calgary forward T.J. Galiardi battled for the puck in the neutral zone and skated to the top of the slot for a shot that Canes goalie Anton Khudobin stopped. But Galiardi again won a fight for the puck behind the net, tipping it along the boards to Matt Stajan for a pass back to Wideman at the point.

Calgary did not score but doggedly kept the puck in the Canes’ end.

“They rimmed pucks all night long, which created a whole game on the boards,” Muller said. “What it didn’t allow us to do was use our strength, which is get the puck, move it from side to side, move it up the ice and then use our speed.

“When they dump it around, you have to stop it. That forces you to be a start-and-stop team. You’ve got to win your battles. … We didn’t have a heavy enough game where if the puck’s in the corner, you come out with it. Are you first on the pucks? Do you win the battles in front of your net? Do you win the battles in front of their net to get second and third rebounds? We didn’t win enough of them that we pushed Calgary out of the game.”

The Canes expect the hard games to continue the rest of the season, but are they built for that kind of game-to-game grind?

The Hurricanes don’t have a lot of size and traded away physical defenseman Tim Gleason. It’s not a team that relies on its physicality.

Muller noted forward Nathan Gerbe is just 5-foot-5, but added, “He still wins his little battles, and gets in there first and gets his nose dirty.”

For Muller, being strong isn’t just about size. He noted the Canes were in gritty, physical low-scoring games early in the season and won.

“Can we sustain it in back-to-back games? Can we sustain it three (games) in four nights?” Muller said. “It’s a mindset of being willing able to get in those dirty (areas) and win those type of grinding games, and that’s going to be our challenge to our guys.”

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

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