Drive to Olympic Break Begins
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October was split not necessarily between the before and after of the annual State Fair road trip, but rather the four-day break during the road swing that allowed the team to return to Raleigh. December was virtually split in half, featuring a tightly-packed, road-heavy first half followed by a more spread out, home-friendly second half.
January is very similar: a virtual split in half divisible by a four-day gap between games, the latter of which will spill into February before the two-and-a-half week Olympic break.
Between now and then, the Hurricanes will play 11 games in 22 days, including eight of those at PNC Arena, where Carolina is a game over hockey .500 at 10-9-5 on the season.
“You need to be pushing hard to pick up points because everyone in our division is, especially at home, so we’ve got to be ready to go tomorrow,” Eric Staal said.
“We’re focused on the games coming up. It’s a big weekend,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “We’ve got to take advantage of being a strong home team here until the Olympic break.”
After Monday’s loss to Calgary, the Canes had a battle-focused practice on Tuesday followed by an off-day on Wednesday. Thursday’s practice at Raleigh Center Ice was an extended, two-part skate, and Friday’s capped a productive week in preparation for the stretch ahead. Each practice also had a common theme – revisiting and touching up on the fine details of the team’s game.
“It’s been great. It’s what we wanted this week. We wanted to take advantage of the practice time to work on our system, our special teams and keep everybody sharp,” Muller said. “We’ve had some good quality time to work on things and gear up for now until the Olympic break.
“We worked on special teams every day. It was more like a review of our system – our defensive zone coverage, our neutral zone and our offensive attack. We did more video than we normally do to go over stuff, and then we applied it in practice.”
The extended break between games also gave Staal, among others, a chance to rest some nagging injury issues.
“I don’t think it hurt. I felt good health-wise last game, but you’re still trying to get up to speed,” he said. “We had a good couple practices this week, a good pace, good battle level and good tempo. For me, it’s good to let that kind of rest this week and look forward to a big stretch drive before the break.”
The Olympic break sets the table for a dense stretch drive that will consist of 16 of 25 games being played on the road.
“Physically, it’s demanding because of the back-to-backs, the way that teams compete and the battle level you have to have,” said Staal, who returned to the lineup on Monday after missing three games with a lower-body injury. “You really need to take care of yourself.”
Because of how often the Canes will play the final 50 days of the season, a stretch that includes a number of back-to-back and three-in-four scenarios, practice time will be limited. This week marked a targeted opportunity for the Canes to rest, recharge and refocus heading into the stretch run of the season. Despite dropping their last two games, both shutouts, the Hurricanes are placing emphasis on the fact that they’ve won five of their last seven games, including four of six in January.
“There are going to be some games from here to the end that we’re going to be disappointed in and there are games we’re going to steal. Whatever it is, it’s a matter of finding points,” Muller said. “We had this week to work on things because, coming up, we’re not going to be able to run these practices.”
The Canes begin their drive to the Olympic break with games against old Southeast Division opponents Florida and Tampa Bay in a back-to-back home set.
“We know the identity of our team and what we do. When we do it well, we have success, and that’s what we have to concentrate on,” Muller said. “We’re rested and we worked on stuff. Now, (we have to) go out, get back on track and take care of the things we can control. What we can control is how we play, and that starts tomorrow.”