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DeCock: Hurricanes have chance to make pre-Sochi statement

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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RALEIGH Kirk Muller freely admits that his team tends to lose focus when it gets caught up looking at the big picture. If there’s a sailboat hidden among the dots of that magic eye 3-D poster, the Carolina Hurricanes aren’t going to find it.

Nevertheless, this is a good time for Muller’s Hurricanes to take a step back and examine their situation. With only two games left before the Olympic break, both at home – Friday against the Florida Panthers and Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens – it’s a chance to make a statement about this team’s ambitions and intentions before they scatter to Sochi and elsewhere.

“It’s going to be a long stretch without hockey, so we want to make sure we’re finishing strong here, before that layoff,” Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. “We’ve got two days to rest up and get ready for two strong games and we have to make sure we’re on our toes and playing aggressive.”

It’s important to pile up points now because the Hurricanes’ schedule is insanely crowded after the break. They get started a day earlier than everyone else because of the rescheduled Buffalo game on Feb. 25, the beginning of a brutal road trip to the West Coast that sees them play five games in eight days, then fly back across the country to play seven games in 12 days. There are only five two-day breaks in the final two months of the season, so there’s no time to fix anything on the fly. It has to happen coming out of the break.

The Hurricanes have some pressing issues to work through before the break as well. There’s an anemic power play that cost the Hurricanes two points against Paul Maurice’s Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday – only three teams in the NHL are producing at a lower rate – and a logjam in goal with Anton Khudobin playing at an elite level and Cam Ward healthy and ready to return to work.

As much the Hurricanes would like to get Ward some action before the Olympic break, it will be hard to stray from Khudobin unless he struggles Friday. He’s playing too well right now, and with points at such a premium, the Hurricanes can’t afford to sit him just for the sake of working Ward into the mix.

It’s a situation where Muller has to go game-by-game. In that respect, he’s no different than his team.

“Truthfully, we find with our group, we work better day-by-day,” the Hurricanes’ coach said. “If we get into the big picture – where you are in the standings, we need to pick up six points here, where you might be – for whatever reason our group just works better focusing on the day at hand.”

The Hurricanes are one of five teams within a five-point range battling for the third and final playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division and one of six separated by the same margin for the second of two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference. All of which sets up for a very tight race coming out of the Olympic break – and places an additional premium on these final two games before it.

“I don’t know that we want to make too many adjustments,” Hurricanes forward Drayson Bowman said. “I thought we played pretty well (against Winnipeg). Obviously we wanted the result, but if we keep playing like that, we’ll get results the next couple of games.”

Bowman, who earned the primary assist on the Hurricanes’ only goal Tuesday, is right. The Hurricanes have played well enough to win most of their games lately – five of their past seven. But they have also lost two of their past three, and that’s a trend that has to stop now, or they’ll have to spend almost three weeks stewing over it.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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