Canes improve special teams, but it is too late?

calexander@newsobserver.comApril 4, 2014 

CANESDAL19-SP-040314-nosell-CCS

The Canes John-Michael Liles (26) celebrates after he scored during the second period of an NHL game played between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Dallas Stars at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. on April 3, 2014. The Canes beat the Stars 4-1.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

— The Carolina Hurricanes spent much of the season trying to fix a broken power play.

It took a mandate from Canes coach Kirk Muller and a personal challenge before the penalty killing improved.

That both special teams have become more effective of late has made the Canes a tougher team to beat, but it’s too late. With five games left, they likely will be left out of the Stanley Cup playoffs for a fifth consecutive year.

When Carolina was beating the Dallas Stars 4-1 on Thursday, getting power-play goals from defensemen Justin Faulk and John-Michael Liles, the Columbus Blue Jackets also were winning. The Jackets hold the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and stayed six points ahead of the Canes.

Columbus (39-30-7) had a chance to add to its cushion Friday when it hosted the Chicago Blackhawks. The Canes (34-32-11) on Saturday face the New Jersey Devils, another team ahead of them in the standings.

The power-play goals by Liles and Faulk in the second period helped push the Canes past the Stars. Liles had a goal and two assists in the second, becoming the first Canes defenseman to pick up three points in the same period since Bret Hedican did it Oct. 24, 2007, against the Buffalo Sabres.

But a penalty kill early in the third was just as important. The Stars trailed 3-1 and began the period with 108 seconds of power-play time, but the Canes aggressively got the job done, just as they did on the Stars’ other two power plays.

In the past nine games, the Canes have scored on nine of 31 power plays (29 percent). The penalty kill has been even better, with Carolina going 32-of-34 in the past 13 games (94.1 percent) to move up to 13th in the NHL at 82.8 percent.

“I don’t think we changed anything systematically,” said Canes forward Patrick Dwyer, who gets a lot of shorthanded ice time. “We had some meeting where we sat down and said, ‘You’ve got to take pride in doing it and in killing the penalties, knowing you’re going to get your bumps and bruises and stings, but knowing you’ve got to take that or we’ll find someone else who will.’”

Dwyer said Muller was the first to make the demand, but other players also spoke up.

“It was like, ‘Enough’s enough. We’re going to need this to be in games and we need to figure it out,’” Dwyer said.

The Canes had allowed power-play goals in losses to Buffalo and the Los Angeles Kings during a five-game road trip after the Olympic break in late-February. Power-play scores by the Devils and New York Rangers then factored into two more Canes losses.

The message was delivered, and things improved.

“You look at all the top teams and you can get by with an average power play, but all the top teams that move forward have strong penalty-killing groups,” Muller said. “They really take a lot of pride in it and work hard.”

Muller said assistant coaches John MacLean and Rod Brind’Amour worked with the penalty kill units, making them positionally sound.

“Same personnel,” Muller said, “but more commitment is the big (thing) and taking pride in it. Because of it, it’s done a great job since the Olympic break.”

The power play, 28th in the NHL, has been an ever evolving, mostly frustrating thing. There have been different personnel groups, and among the best in recent games has been the youngest, with Jeff Skinner, rookie Elias Lindholm and center Riley Nash on it.

Not to be overlooked is the addition of forward Andrei Loktionov, obtained from the Devils in the March 5 trade that sent Tuomo Ruutu to New Jersey. His work on the half-wall has been a boost to the power play.

Crowding the other team’s goaltender also has helped. Against the Stars, goalie Kari Lehtonen was screened on both point shots by Faulk and Liles that wound up in the back of the net.

“You deal with a lot of different personnel and it’s a matter of all being on the same page,” Liles said.

NOTE: The Canes on Friday reassigned forwards Chris Terry and Zach Boychuk to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL while recalling defenseman Ryan Murphy. Boychuk was called up on an emergency basis on Thursday.

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

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