Back to Work
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Though medals are still to be decided in Sochi, for the group of 18 players – 11 forwards, five defensemen and two goaltenders – at Raleigh Center Ice, the Olympic break is over.
Thursday morning’s practice marked the beginning of a series of training camp-like skates for the Canes, who hop back into game action on Tuesday in Buffalo, the start of a season-long, five-game road trip.
“It’s just to get them back to skating up and down with some battle drills today and tomorrow,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “Less structural, as far as the system, until the other guys (Olympians) get back. For these two days, it’s more of battling.”
“It’s a little different right now because we’re missing some guys. We aren’t going to do a lot of system stuff in the next couple of days because we’re missing some key players who play important positions on our team,” Eric Staal said. “For the guys here, it’s more about getting the pace up and getting the lungs back.”
The Canes’ four Olympians – Justin Faulk (USA), Tuomo Ruutu (FIN), Andrej Sekera (SVK) and Alexander Semin (RUS) – did not practice today; Faulk and Ruutu are still in medal contention, while Sekera and Semin will rest for a few days, at least, before rejoining the team.
“I’m leaving it with them to make a judgment call,” Muller said. “They’re both veteran guys. If they need a little rest for a couple of days, I’d rather see them do that. Once [games] start, they’re not going to get it.”
For the non-Olympians, much of the break was spent far removed from a hockey rink, but the coaching staff tasked them to come back into practices well-conditioned; the remaining schedule is tightly packed and practice time will be limited, so this stretch of five days is vital.
“We said, ‘The better shape you guys come in starting today, the less we have to focus on conditioning and we can get into other stuff. We tested the guys today … and they all worked hard. They came back ready to go,” Muller said. “It shows that the guys are committed, and they want to have a good push here to go after our goal.”
“It’s a good thing for the body,” Jordan Staal said of the break. “It’s just a matter of pushing through the first few days.”
“It has been a long break, but we’re not that far removed,” Eric said. “The rust comes off a lot quicker here than a summer break. After the five days, we’ll be ready to play.”
With practice time limited moving forward – the Canes will play 25 games over the course of 48 days – alternate ways of teaching and tweaking systems are magnified.
“In a perfect world, we’d love to have a few more practice days to work on everything, but it’s what it is, and other teams are going to be in the same boat. We just have to condense it,” Muller said. “Video will be a real powerful thing from here to the end … because practice time is going to be very limited now. Rest is going to be really huge.”
Following Tuesday’s rescheduled match in Buffalo, the Canes will touch down in Dallas, Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose before finally making their way back to Raleigh for their first home game in a month’s time.
It’s a crucial stretch of hockey, especially with the Canes hovering just five points out of a divisional playoff spot with games in hand.
“With the way we are in the standings and how tight it is, we’re going to have to step into this road trip and go with it,” Jordan said. “It’s going to be a really big test for us, obviously.”
“The type of game we’ve played from January 1 on, we can get some good results and some wins – we’re obviously going to need them,” Eric said. “We want to get off to a good start … and there’s a good chance to go on the road together to come up with some big wins and good games.”
The break is over, and now the work begins again.
“It’s a restart button for everybody. It’s a great opportunity for everyone to take a deep breath and use this break mentally and physically,” Muller said. “Our goal is to make the playoffs, and we’re going to need everybody.”