Even though Eric Staal no longer plays for the Carolina Hurricanes, he had a chance to give them an assist Thursday.
Staal and the New York Rangers, his new team, went to Pittsburgh on Thursday night to face the Penguins. A Rangers win would have kept the Canes four points behind Pittsburgh in the fight for the final wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but the Pens won 4-1.
For those who might be wondering, the Canes haven’t given up on making the playoffs. Those hopes aren’t packed away like Kris Versteeg’s sticks.
There are 17 games remaining, and while Staal, Versteeg and John-Michael Liles were traded, while general manager Ron Francis talks about building for the future and Canes coach Bill Peters has talked of the final stretch being an evaluation period, the players believe more is possible.
Derek Ryan, Brock McGinn and Ryan Murphy have filled in the gaps. While the Canes lost 5-2 to the St. Louis Blues Sunday – a game played a few hours after Staal was traded – they bounced back to top the New Jersey Devils 3-1 Tuesday.
“These are not games where we’re going to not try,” forward Jeff Skinner said. “Guys are playing for jobs. Every time you go out and play in the NHL, it’s a chance to sort of show yourself and show what you can do. It’s not different now, for anyone.
“You come to the rink and you try to win the game. And after that game you try to win the next game and try to win that one. For us, that’s the way you have to look at it. There are too many what-ifs, when you starting counting things. As players you just focus on doing your job.”
The Canes (29-26-10) play Saturday on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning. After returning to Raleigh for a home game Tuesday against the Ottawa Senators, the Canes will have a run of another five road games, including a stop in Pittsburgh on March 17.
Asked this week about realistic expectations for his team, Peters said: “We’re going to win every game we play. We’re going to prepare the same way. Nothing’s changing. Our expectations are very high but they’re realistic.”
Peters said there would be more call-ups from the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers, allowing the coaching staff and management the chance to see them against NHL competition and make personnel decisions heading into the postseason.
There also will be players changing positions. Peters said Elias Lindholm, used primarily as a right wing in his three NHL seasons, would be used at center.
“When he goes in the middle it’s not going to be for one or two periods or one or two games,” Peters said. “It’s going to be an extended look. He was drafted as a center, hasn’t played a lot of center in the NHL. But we’re going to know at the end of this year of he can do it or not.”
The same can be said for goalie Eddie Lack. Cam Ward is in the last year of his contract, and the Canes would like to have a better handle on Lack – given a two-year extension before the season – before any further contract discussions with Ward.
With so many young players asked to play a fast-paced style of game, there will be mistakes. There will be defensive breakdowns and miscommunication in the offensive zone and on special teams.
“You make mistakes and you’re working hard, you’re going right back out,” Peters said. “The other side, though, is if there’s a bunch of mistakes through non-effort, now that’s an issue. I don’t think we’ll have any issues moving forward.”
Even before the trades March appeared daunting, with nine of the 14 games away from Raleigh. The last game of the month is a March 31 home game against the Rangers, with Staal making what should be an emotional return.
“We’re not playing out the string one bit,” Peters said. “That’s not acceptable. We’ve laid a bit of a foundation and a culture and we’re not deviating from that at all. It’s a great evaluation time but we want to keep accumulating points and getting wins.”