Originally posted on Fox Sports Carolinas  |  Last updated 3/8/12

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 25: Carolina Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford speaks on the phone during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft at Staples Center on June 25, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz has had a good viewpoint from which to judge the progress made this season by Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller. For one, Muller started the season as the coach of the Predators' top farm team. But also because the Predators have played the Hurricanes twice at key times since Muller took over for the fired Paul Maurice. The first was on Jan. 7, about five weeks into Muller's tenure, and the Preds came away with a 5-2 win at home in which the 'Canes yielded power-play goals on four of five chances. The second was a 4-3 loss at RBC Center on Feb. 28. Trotz said that Muller has the 'Canes "playing with a lot of pace and a lot of conviction.'' Trotz, whose team entered Thursday's games with the sixth-most points in the NHL, noticed how Muller applied Nashville's pressure system to Carolina, minus a few tweaks here or there. "Yeah, when they were doing it better than us, it was making me angry,'' Trotz said. "It was making me really angry -- angry and frustrated.'' That frustrating style that Muller has brought to Carolina Hurricanes has them playing some of the best hockey in the NHL over the last two months, with a record of 11-4-7 over their last 22 games. In addition to X's and O's, which take a while to implement, Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford said the main factor in Muller's tenure has been a new level of accountability. Mullers nickname as a player -- "Kirk is Work'' -- seems to have translated to his coaching style at the NHL level. "Theres no magic wand when you come into a team and, certainly at mid-season, it does a take a little while to establish new ideas and Kirk has been able to do that,'' Rutherford said. "He makes our players accountable immediately on a shift-to-shift basis and hes very consistent with the players as to when a player misses a shift or a period or if hes taken off a line. "I really like his consistency. He's brought the work ethic thats necessary to compete in this league. The easiest way for me to explain it is we play like a Kirk Muller team for the people who watched Kirk Muller play as a player. That's how youve seen this team play -- play hard, play to win, do what it takes to win.'' In his 19 seasons, Muller amassed 357 goals and 602 assists, so along with that work ethic, he also knows a thing or two about being a highly skilled player. One of his most salutary effects has been reviving the play of captain Eric Staal, one of the league's elite forwards who slumped baldy with 11 points in 25 games and a minus-17 rating that hovered among the worst in the NHL when Maurice was fired. At the time, Muller was hired, many quickly pointed to the similarities between Muller with Staal. Both won Stanley Cups and served as team captains. Both were selected second overall in the NHL draft. Both were highly respected around the league and by their teammates. "In Eric Staal's case, you couldn't have a better guy to be guiding Eric,'' Rutherford said. " When Kirk sits with Eric, certainly there are some tips Kirk can give him. Eric has played as well as anyone in the league the last six to eight weeks.'' Indeed, Staal has 48 points in his last 42 games, a pace that would land him among the league's top five scorers at seasons end, if sustained for all 82 games. One of the big questions that lingers, at least for the remainder of this season, is whether the 'Canes' effort is a case of too-little-too-late. The realist in Rutherford fears that maybe it is so, but the long-timer observer in him hopes not. With only 15 games remaining in the regular season and the Hurricanes seven points back of the Eastern Conferences eighth and final playoff spot, they, not insignificantly, would have to climb over six teams in the standings. "We think about it because until youre mathematically eliminated, you should,'' Rutherford said of the playoffs. "As a team, you should never give up. It's probably not probable. But funny things happen in sports. You hang in there as long as you can and see what happens.'' Then he pointed out that Carolina plays two of the teams it is chasing -- eighth-place Winnipeg and Southeast Division leader Florida -- a combined five more times (two at home and two on the road). "Wed have to run the table,'' Rutherford said. "But the margin is not as great as it looks, but that's the 'big if.''' One of the most bizarre things about the Hurricanes season -- and a factor that almost singlehandedly is keeping them out of playoff position right now -- is their record in overtime and in shootouts. The 'Canes are a league-worst 3-15. A .500 record of 9-9 would leave them a single point behind Winnipeg for eighth. Rutherford cites a combination of factors for that poor mark: a lack of confidence that snowballed after poor results early, giving up shorthanded situations -- 4-on-3s are harder to kill in overtime when teams play 4-on-4 -- and a lack of production in the shootout from some players. At 0-6, Carolina is the only winless team in the league in the shootout. Goalie Cam Ward is 0-4 in the shootout and has allowed six goals on 11 shots for a .455 save percentage. Last season, in an Alll-Star year for him, he ranked sixth in the NHL in shootout wins, going 5-4 while also allowing six goals but on 25 shots for a .760 save percentage. "Theres many things we can point to and thats a big one,'' Rutherford said. "Weve had guys in the past who have been successful in shootouts in given years and this year they're not. For all the things that went wrong in November, we can just not even talk about that and talk about the overtime record and that would be enough to at least get us right there, at least tied with the team in the eighth spot. "Thats certainly been a big disappointment.'' Whether the 'Canes can pull off the miracle and somehow compensate for last seasons loss in the season finale that cost them a playoff berth remains a long shot. But at least they seem to have a solid foundation going forward -- one that starts with Kirk is Work.
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