Saturday November 7th, 2009

Of all teams, the Carolina Hurricanes should know: When it rains, it pours.

If a franchise-worst 2-9-3 start wasn't enough, they'll have to dig themselves out of the hole without star center Eric Staal. The ironman who had been one of the most durable forwards in the league during the last four seasons will be out of the lineup for at least two weeks, nursing an upper body injury. It's the first extended absence he'll take since he entered the league in 2003.

"He just isn't somebody we can replace," laments coach Paul Maurice.

Life will be tough for a team that seemed to live and die according to Staal's productivity last spring. During the playoffs, the Canes were 7-1 when he scored; 1-6 when he didn't. But rest is something Staal sorely needs.

"There were two different things that were sort of bothering me [this season], and then this [upper body injury] got more serious, so I have no choice but to get healed up," he says. He's been battling a nagging groin injury since August as well.

The looming challenge for the Hurricanes, though, goes beyond their star's health. It will be establishing an identity beyond their success of last season. "The problem is you have to go back to last year to draw anything positive, and that's never a healthy thing to do," says Maurice. "You have to recreate yourself."

Like looking back on your college years, it's easy to remember the good times and forget the difficulties along the way. "We had a good run at the end, but sometimes you forget how hard it was for us to get to that point," Maurice says. "[We played] a lot of one-goal, grinding, close games that could've gone either way. I think you come back and somehow feel that this is going to be easier."

That's the same mentality that comes along with the common sophomore slump. Memories are short, and players in their second year sometimes forget how hard they worked as rookies to excel. Production falls, and there isn't an easy explanation as to why. Likewise, the Hurricanes are finding it hard to figure out why a group that is essentially unchanged from last spring's Eastern Conference Final team can't seem to win.

Maurice likens his situation to containing a forest fire. "When things are going south, it's never just one fire," he says. "It's just that one burns a little hotter one day, and you go over there and try to fix it. And then something else pops up."

It's a frustrating battle, and thus, the team's confidence has suffered while the number of mistakes has grown. Carolina, last season's least-penalized team, now leads the league with 108 PIM through 14 games. Granted, they've got more fight in their lineup, but their minors are way up from last year, which presents a major concern to Maurice.

"Most of our [penalties] are related to the fact that we're not scoring goals and it causes us to put ourselves in strange positions on the ice and cheat a little here and there," he says. "You're reaching from behind a lot more, and you're hooking, and then the anxiety gets up and so you've got more roughing penalties."

It's not the sort of thing you'd expect from a veteran team, the second oldest in the league, but like perhaps Detroit, which seems to be easing itself into the season at the pace of a beached whale, an unintended downside from being experienced could be the tendency to diminish any sense of urgency.

Of course, Stanley Cups aren't won or lost in the first month of the season, but early going can certainly dictate the identity of the team. Carolina's identity thus far is just plain frustrated.

Staal is just the latest star to go down the injured path this season. What is up with all the hurt these days?

Many of the injuries we've seen so far seem to point to overuse, rather than incident. Perhaps preseason is to blame. With the season starting early because of the Olympic break, and given that training camps can only be 20 days long, players may not have had proper time to ease into the season this year. A slightly compressed early schedule doesn't help much either.

Speaking of the Olympics, there are less than 100 days to go until opening ceremonies, and with so many high-end players out of lineups early on, it does add some intrigue to the Vancouver storylines. Certainly the Russian organizers are keeping a keen eye on what's happening here. With Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar, Ilya Kovalchuk, Andrei Markov all out for a while -- and Pavel Datsyuk is not at 100 percent either -- this certainly looks troubling. But maybe it's a blessing. It seems safe to say the Russians will have one of the best-rested teams in Vancouver.

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