Habs stay loose prior to duel with scoring-challenged Hurricanes
Published Monday, December 30, 2013 9:47PM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, December 31, 2013 6:59PM EST
The Montreal Canadiens have to like their chances in their last game of the 2013 calendar year in Raleigh Tuesday, as they pitch battle against Kirk Muller’s struggling Hurricanes.
Muller might be seen as a hero in Montreal after helping lead the Habs to their last Stanley Cup in 1993, but Carolina Hurricanes’ (14-26-9) fans are starting to raise questions about Muller's coaching in his third year behind the bench, as the team struggles in 13th spot in the 16-team Eastern Conference.
The Montreal Canadiens, (23-14-3) meanwhile, are hoping to go 2-1 on their four-game holiday road swing after winning 2-1 in a shootout in Tampa and then losing 4-1 to the Florida Panthers Sunday. They have gone 5-5-0 in their last 10 games and now sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Habs held a practice in Raleigh, North Carolina Monday designed to loosen up the crew after a frustrating loss the evening before.
The players split up for a playful scrimmage between whites and reds and much laughter echoed through the rink, which was music to Coach Michel Therrien's ears after a loss in Florida which saw many players frustrated after two goals had been disallowed.
“Being refused two goals you thought you deserved, we felt frustration, that’s why we’re recharging and regrouping and having fun,” Therrien told a reporter from RDS.
The Hurricanes have won only two of their last 10 games and were thumped 5-2 by the Toronto Maple Leafs in their latest outing, yet they still sit just three points out of the eighth and final playoff spot as of Monday evening.
The Hurricanes have seen drop-offs in the performances of wide variety of players this season and as a result, their offence has become the third-most anemic in the entire NHL, as their 91 goals in 39 games tops only Buffalo and Nashville.
The Canes had hoped to find some spark after Manny Malhotra joined the team after suffering serious damage to his eye two years ago while with the Vancouver Canucks. But the 33-year-old forward has notched just four points in 27 games.
Alex Semin, 29, who is signed until 2018 at $7 million per season, has only four goals and 14 points in 27 games after notching 40 goals just three years ago for the Washington Capitals. He has been in and out of the lineup this season with concussion issues.
Semin had made for a fearsome duo with Jiri Tlusty last season, as the 25-year-old Czech enjoyed his finest-ever NHL season with 38 points in 48 games. But Tlusty has struggled as well and has put up 10 points in 37 games thus far.
Two-time 40-goal scorer Eric Staal leads the team with 30 points in 39 games but also is also tied with Tuomo Ruutu for a team-worst -17 on the plus-minus scale.
On the plus side, Carolina has allowed a respectable 109 goals, eighth best in the conference, thanks partially to solid work by career minor leaguer Justin Peters, who has a .922 save percentage in 20 games, better than veteran Cam Ward, who has struggled with a .898 save percentage in 18 games. Ward saved 22 of 26 shots in the Hurricanes’ recent 5-2 loss to the Leafs.
Andrej Sekera, a Slovakian 27-year-old, has impressed on defence since being acquired from Buffalo in the off season, scoring seven goals and 14 assists in 37 games.
Former Habs Ron Hansey and Mike Komisarek also have roles on the Carolina blueline, although Komisarek has only suited up for a dozen games.
Another of the rare pleasant surprises for the Hurricanes has been the play of speedy forward Nathan Gerbe, 26, who is earning a league minimum $550,000 after being bought out by the Buffalo Sabres.
The 5’5” Gerbe has 18 points in 38 games after spending his earlier seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, who waived him rather than pay him his $1.85 million left on the last year of his deal.
Jeff Skinner, 21, long known as one of the NHL’s fastest skaters, leads the Hurricanes in goals with 14 in 26 games. The former Calder Trophy winner was named the NHL’s first star for the first week of December.
In spite of their lack of victories, the Hurricanes have competed hard in recent games, going into overtime in a 4-3 loss to the Penguins on Friday.
For the Canadiens, Carey Price is expected back in nets after backup Peter Budaj fought the puck at times in a 4-1 loss to Tampa Bay.
The Habs are hoping for better performances from Russian rearguards Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin, who went a combined minus seven against the Panthers.
The Canadiens will hope for another inspired performance by their fourth line of Brandon Prust, Ryan White and Travis Moen, who constantly pressured the Panthers in spite of limited ice time Sunday and accounted for the team's only goal.
The Hurricanes made a minor move Monday, trading little-used Kevin Westgarth to Calgary for Greg Nemisz, a former high scoring junior who hasn’t found his form yet in the pros. Nemisz, who had 9 points in 32 games with the Abbotsford Heat, will be assigned to the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate.