Carolina Hurricanes Jim Rutherford is seen in this official 2002-2003 season NHL handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO/NHL
When the Carolina Hurricanes opened the season with a 7-3-3 October it appeared the 2006 NHL champions may have recovered from their Stanley Cup hangover of last season.
Veteran GM Jim Rutherford had done the right thing by keeping his '06 core together instead of blowing them up after missing the playoffs last year.
But then the injuries started to pile up and the team slid into inconsistency, going 13-15-1 since that hot start in October.
Suddenly a Southeast Division title that seemed destined early in the season is up for grabs with Atlanta, Florida and Washington all within shouting distance.
"It's been frustrating the last month or so, our record being below .500 in December and teams gaining ground on us," star Carolina centre Eric Staal told The Canadian Press on Thursday. "We've had a lot of injuries, not to make excuses, we've had key guys in and out of the lineup.
"And just the consistency game in and game out I don't think has been there."
There's not much Rutherford can do about injuries but he did make one notable decision Thursday, putting veteran goalie John Grahame on waivers and recalling netminder Michael Leighton from Albany of the AHL.
Grahame is earning US$1.4 million this season and will be an unrestricted free agent July 1.
"John Grahame didn't do anything wrong, he didn't get any support," Rutherford said. "We're just giving another guy a chance here."
Leighton will back up a starting goalie in Cam Ward that like his team has also cooled off after a hot start. Ward's 2.84 goals-against average and .902 save percentage are both ranked 30th among NHL goalies.
"We need more consistent goaltending to win our division," said Rutherford. "And that's what we're going to look for in the second half."
Meanwhile the injuries continue to cripple the Hurricanes. Star winger Justin Williams is out 4-6 months after having reconstructive knee surgery to fix a torn ACL. Also out are defencemen Bret Hedican (knee), David Tanabe (concussion) and Niclas Wallin (groin), and forward Matt Cullen (illness) and most Scott Walker (knee).
Walker was hurt during Wednesday night's 5-4 overtime loss to Atlanta and will be out at least one week. Forward Andrew Ladd wore a cage and played against Atlanta but on Thursday underwent facial surgery. He's day to day.
"We're a team built on balance and we've had a lot of injuries and a lot of key injuries that we haven't been able to overcome," said Rutherford. "And we continue to get them."
Carolina (20-18-4) opens a three-game road trip Friday in Atlanta followed by stops Saturday at St. Louis and Tuesday at Boston.
"If we can play well on this road trip it's going to do a lot for our confidence and for the rest of the year," said Staal.
"We're still first in our division and teams are still trying to catch us,"added Staal. "If we win a bunch of games in a row and make sure we beat the teams that are behind us, we'll be in the playoffs. But we want to play better hockey, more consistent hockey. We have to start doing that now."
Veteran defenceman Glen Wesley also pointed to a very frustrating statistic.
"Our penalty kill has been the worst in the league for close to a month now and that doesn't help the situation," Wesley said Thursday.
Being 30th in the NHL in penalty killing despite having two-time defending Selke Trophy winner Rob Brind'Amour in the lineup wasn't exactly in the cards. But exemplifies the frustration of a team that expects much bigger things.
"The injuries aren't making it any easier but we're not going to use that as an excuse," said Wesley. "We'll continue to push ourselves to play well and get back on track. ...
"I think we do have the confidence and the ability to get through this and get things turned around."
Wesley also wants him and his teammates to show Rutherford that he was right for not dismantling the '06 championship core.
"He had the confidence and trust that we could bounce back from what we went through last year," said Wesley.
"We have to prove that only making minor changes was the right thing. We have to go out there and get the job done."