Gameday: Canes Realize Importance of Divisional Games
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“Morning skates are really just formalities,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “I think our guys know the importance of tonight, anyway. They’ve got energy, and they’ll save it for tonight.”
“These are the games that are probably going to make the difference whether we get above that red line on the standings board or stay below it,” forward Tim Brent said. “We’re a pretty confident group, especially at home lately. We’ve been playing really well.”
Though the standings board in the locker room went dark for awhile earlier in the season, it’s been updated daily for a over a month now. It’s a constant reminder about where the team is positioned, and they’ve recently started to see tangible results as the red “Carolina” marker has begun to move upward.
“The standings board is right here in the locker room. It’s something you have to walk past everyday to get to your seat,” Brent said. “We’re paying attention, but no body is really crunching the numbers. We’ve been focusing on the way that we’ve been performing and playing and letting that kind of take care of itself.”
“We’ve been pushing hard and battling to stay in the mix with everybody,” he said. “Quietly, we haven’t gone away. Let’s be realistic. It’s not a no-brainer that if we’re going to keep climbing and get into the hunt, we’ve got to beat teams ahead of us.”
While having to beat teams ahead of them is a regular occurence for the 14th-place Canes, it becomes especially important tonight with a divisional opponent. The team believes its best chance to make the playoffs is to win the division. Reason being, it is easier to climb over four teams than five or six, even more so when the point differential is comparable.
“All you can do is control your games,” Muller said. “What happens with teams above you, you can’t control that. We’ve been picking up points since the All-Star break, and I think we’re playing good hockey right now.”
The Panthers have gotten the better of the Hurricanes thus far this season, winning both of the meetings. The first was Muller’s first game as head coach of the Canes, a 3-1 loss at the RBC Center. About three weeks later, the Canes dropped a 3-2 overtime decision in South Florida.
Florida comes in to tonight’s game winless in four straight (0-3-1). In that stretch, they’ve been outscored 12-5 (not counting the extra shootout goal credited to Minnesota), including a 2-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. After losing in a shootout to the Wild on Thursday, the Panthers dropped out of the Southeast Division lead, a position they’ve held for 85 days this season.
Jiri Tlusty, who will play despite not skating this morning, brings a nine-game point streak (4g, 6a) into the game. Eric Staal is riding a seven-game point streak (6g, 6a). Just one assist has been recorded against Florida this season between these two players, but that was then, and this is now. Since the two teams last met in December, Staal has recorded 30 points (11g, 19a); he now leads the team in scoring with 50 points (18g, 32a).
Justin Peters will get his third consecutive start in net, with Cam Ward still sidelined with a lower-body injury. That said, Ward could be making his return to the crease soon, despite not skating this morning.
“It was actually encouraging today,” Muller said. “I don’t want to say – because I don’t know for sure – Tuesday, but it’s looking good. We’re taking precautions, so I don’t want to rush it tonight.”
In his last three starts, Peters has made 87 saves on 91 shots, a .956 save percentage. He’s recorded two wins and a shootout loss (plus, a loss in relief of Ward on Feb. 18).
The importance of tonight’s game is magnified with a divisional opponent in town. But Muller said it boils down to another step in the team’s hunt to get back into the playoff picture.
“It really goes back to being a day-to-day team,” he said. “We go out for tonight’s game and give it all we’ve got, compete, play hard and stay focused. Then we wake up tomorrow and start all over again.”