Bill Peters wasn’t the first coach to come in promising “accountability” in some vague way, the hockey equivalent of a basketball coach claiming, “We’re going to run.” Everyone says it. Rarely does anyone really mean it.
This weekend, the Carolina Hurricanes’ coach showed just how much he meant it.
On a mere 22 hours’ rest, against the toughest test the NHL has to offer, Peters stuck to his guns. Alexander Semin, he of the zero goals, lackadaisical play and $7 million salary, a healthy scratch in Saturday’s win over the Arizona Coyotes, remained out of the lineup. Cam Ward, coming off a 25-save shutout after Peters went against his rotation and started him on a hunch, went straight back into the net.
Peters was rewarded for his fortitude with a two-game winning streak, thanks to a 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday. Ward was excellent again. So were the Hurricanes. Winless in October, they’re unbeaten in November.
For two nights, as healthy as they’re going to be for the foreseeable future, against a so-so team and a very good team, the Hurricanes prospered without Semin. Every aspect of the Hurricanes’ game was sharper, from the goaltending to special teams. They played faster. They played harder.
“A quicker lineup,” Peters said. “An honest, hard-working lineup.”
For much of the first month of the season, Peters looked very much like a man sorting through the fine print of his contract looking for a lemon-law clause. It was hard to tell much about his style or his vision because of the relentless waves of injuries and the equally relentless subpar goaltending from Ward and Anton Khudobin.
And then, over the course of a weekend, with Semin scratched and Nate Gerbe and Patrick Dwyer back in the lineup and Ward coming up with timely save after timely save, it all finally started to click.
Saturday, Peters got his first win as an NHL head coach. Sunday, the Hurricanes went out and did it again against the defending Stanley Cup champions, jumping out to a 2-0 lead and holding on through a thrilling third period, the final minutes the closest thing to playoff intensity this building has seen in a long, long time.
“It’s validation,” Peters said. “It’s starting the formation of an identity. We want it to be positive and have certain characteristics and we’re starting to form that identity and the guys are starting to believe.”
We learned a little bit about Peters on Saturday. We learned even more Sunday.
Peters could easily have justified bringing Semin and John-Michael Liles back into the lineup, because of the short turnaround and the opponent. He never flinched. Not for a second. The message was delivered, and not just to Semin. No one is untouchable. There are no free rides. Get on board or get ye to the press box.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Alex or anyone else,” Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. “It’s holding people accountable to do the things they’re looking for. As you see, it helps. It’s good.”
Give credit to general manager Ron Francis for giving Peters the leeway to bench Semin, the kind of empowerment Peter Laviolette and Kirk Muller would have liked from Jim Rutherford. Give credit to the rest of the Hurricanes for responding the way they did.
And Semin? The way the Hurricanes have played, there’s no imperative to get him back in the lineup. He’s going to have to wait for someone to come out. Despite his salary, despite his talent, he’s the extra forward now. Even when he gets another chance, he’s going to have to earn any ice time he gets, because everyone else is earning it right now.