RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes have spent the past three days practicing but not playing, trying to take advantage of a rare break between games.
They worked on the power play and penalty killing. They worked on defensive-zone coverage and breakouts. They went one-on-one and two-on-two and battled along the boards and in front of the net.
It wasnt the perfect schedule, but we tried to turn it into a positive, Canes coach Kirk Muller said Friday.
Now, the grind begins.
Starting with Saturdays game against the Florida Panthers, the Canes will play five games in seven days. They have 11 games in 22 days before the NHLs break for the Winter Olympics a critical stretch for the Canes and any other team with playoff hopes.
Its a big segment for us, Canes captain Eric Staal said. You need to be pushing hard to pick up points because everybody in our division is.
Since a 2-0 loss to the Calgary Flames on Monday, the Canes could only watch as other Metropolitan Division teams won and picked up points. Through Thursdays games, Carolina (19-18-9) was in seventh place with 47 points, and even with some games in hand, are in catch-up mode.
Its tough. You look up every morning and someones moving here or there and youre sitting still and starting to slip behind, forward Patrick Dwyer said.
The Panthers, one of the Canes old Southeast Division rivals, now are in the new Atlantic Division. A rough start this season cost Kevin Dineen his job as Panthers coach in early November, but Florida has regrouped under interim coach Peter Horachek, going 15-13-3.
From what I see theyre just skating, theyve got young guys, theres no pressure on them and theyre just working and playing a hard game right now, Muller said.
After the unusual four-day break, which included an off-day, the Canes have another rarity: a back-to-back at home. The Tampa Bay Lightning comes into PNC Arena on Sunday for a 5 p.m. game.
The five-in-seven run for Carolina continues with road games at Philadelphia and Buffalo, then at home next Friday against the Ottawa Senators. Of the 11 games before the Olympics next month, eight are at PNC Arena.
The compressed schedule is a challenge for any player, and especially for those who have dealt with recent injuries. Staal returned to the lineup Monday after missing three games with a lower-body injury, and Dwyer sat out practices this week with a lower-body injury.
Its going to be tough and we knew that, Dwyer said. We have the Olympic break, but from now to the end of the year its basically going to be a game every other day.
Its kind of a double-edged sword. You have a game every other day so youre feeling it and youre rolling, but at the same time a game every other day can take minor injuries and turn them into something youre dealing with the rest of the year, so guys have to take care of their bodies.
The Canes will look to end a two-game slide Saturday after a 3-0 road loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets and being beaten by the Flames at home. Muller said Friday that too much had been made of the lackluster loss to Calgary and the two shutouts, noting the Canes have won five of the past seven overall.
I dont think anyone is dwelling on scoring, Muller said. We had one bad game. Everybody talks about it five days later. Were not. Were focused on these games coming up. Its a big weekend.