By Michael Smith
RALEIGH, NC January 16, 2014 – Following two consecutive shutouts, the Carolina Hurricanes have shuffled the lines in search of scoring answers.
Head coach Kirk Muller is turning to what was one of the best lines in the National Hockey League last season to lead that charge. As was the case for the latter half of Monday’s game versus Calgary, Eric Staal centered Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin in practice on Thursday in what was a two-part, 75-minute skate.
Last season, the trio combined for 54 goals and 81 assists (135 points). Staal, Semin and Tlusty were the top three in team scoring, in that order, and all were plus players; Tlusty was a team-leading plus-15, and Semin was a plus-14. Tlusty set career highs in goals (23) and points (38) in just 48 games, and Tlusty’s 23 goals ranked tied for fifth in the NHL.
This season has been a bit of a different story. Each has missed time with injury – Staal missed three games, Tlusty missed eight games and Semin missed 12 games – and for much of the season, the three have been separated; while Staal has played with Semin for most of the season, the left side has featured a varied supporting cast, including Tuomo Ruutu and, most recently, Jeff Skinner.
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“We’ve got a lot of good things going on in our game right now. At the beginning of the year, with nine new guys in our lineup, we were seeing how they fit in as pieces of the puzzle,” Muller said. “A lot of the guys that have come in have done a great job and fit in whether it’s power play, PK, different roles and all that. So we’re looking for synergy going down the stretch.
“Jordan’s line has been really good for a long time, so we don’t want to play around with that. But you look back to last year – Eric, Semin and Tlusty were a dominant line. We need those three guys to play better hockey in the second half if we’re going to get a better record overall,” Muller continued. “They should be a strong No. 1 line, and we should get production from them.”
There’s also added motivation for the trio, as each was left off his respective Olympic team roster. Semin was considered a virtual lock. After capturing a gold medal with Team Canada in 2010 and captaining their World Championship team over the summer (and then suffering a knee injury), Staal was seen as a probable choice. Considering the scoring ability Tlusty displayed last season, his stock was also quite favorable.
But the numbers haven’t quite been there this season. Staal is tied for the team lead in points with 35 (10g, 25a), but even that wasn’t enough. Proving they belonged in Sochi should help to bolster their play down the stretch, and after Staal and Tlusty returned to game-action on Monday, this week of practice should have them raring to go for the final 35 games of the season.
With Jordan Staal’s line remaining in-tact (Patrick Dwyer will be back for this weekend’s games, Muller said), the third and fourth lines – Muller doesn’t even prefer to call them that – have a bit of a new look. Elias Lindholm will get another look at centering the third line, with Skinner, the team’s leading scorer (21 goals), and Ruutu flanking on either side.
“We’ve got to see where Lindy’s at. It’s an important position on a hockey team, and he’s got good chemistry with Skins. When you have a guy as hot as Jeff is, you want to make sure you surround him with the right people, but he seems to adapt to different personnel. He’s a little unique,” Muller said. “We tried that trio there, and if it works, each line has an identity of what we’re asking them to do.”
Drayson Bowman (lower body) missed practice again today but should be ready by the weekend, according to Muller. He’ll likely play the left side on the fourth line with Radek Dvorak on the opposite wing and Manny Malhotra in the middle.
“Maybe the six goals against Toronto set us off track,” Muller mused earlier in the week. “Where we got to get back to this week is, hey, we have to play hard, play the right way, defend well, play well without the puck and be hard to play against, and then when we do get the puck, we have to find ways to get through some of these teams to get second and third chances. We’ll score on odd-man rushes and certain plays and all that, but … we’ve got to get to the net, get hungry and get to those areas.”