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Call it hockey’s Catch-22.
The Carolina Hurricanes want to keep winning games as the regular season winds down. They want to win the Central Division and secure home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They want to be playing their best hockey when the playoffs begin next month.
But Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour also wants to have a healthy, energized team going into the playoffs. He doesn’t have the luxury of using second- and third-teamers when the Canes are ahead in games. His top guys keep going over the boards.
“You want to win every game and you want to push and you want to make sure you’re playing your best, but there’s a fine line, too,” Brind’Amour said on a media call Tuesday. “I see it now. I see it in how we’ve pushed hard all year. I think that’s the only way to do it but I also know it takes a toll mentally and physically.”
In the past two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Brind’Amour has had forward Martin Necas leveled by a vicious open-ice hit on Monday and then defenseman Brady Skjei hit from behind Tuesday and his head banged into the glass with 1:40 left in the first period.
Necas shook it off and came back into the game. Skjei tried one more shift after the hit from Blake Coleman but could not continue. No penalty was called on the play.
“I know nothing’s going to happen but we’ve got a guy now that might have a concussion,” he said. “So I’m not happy about that.”
The Canes won 4-1 on Tuesday, spreading out more minutes among the five defensemen. Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce each played about 24 minutes, and Jake Gardiner and Jani Hakanpaa both more than 18.
“Skjei is a big piece on the back end but those five guys picked up the slack and really kind of hammered it home there for us,” said goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, who picked up his 11th win of the season with a 26-save game.
Added Brind’Amour: “The guys dug in, plain and simple.”
‘I’m proud of our line’
The Canes (30-10-5) now face what could be two more intense, physical, mentally draining road games against the Florida Panthers. The teams are tied at the top of the Central with 65 points, three ahead of Tampa Bay, but the Canes have two games-in-hand on the Panthers and lead the division in winning percentage (.722.)
If Skjei can’t go, Brind’Amour has defenseman Jake Bean ready to jump back into the lineup. Bean was a healthy scratch the past two games as Gardiner and Hakanpaa were the third defensive pair.
Brind’Amour also might give a few more shifts and minutes to his fourth line to ease the weight on the top nine forwards. Steven Lorentz, Cedric Paquette and Morgan Geekie gave the Canes some high-octane play Tuesday and Lorentz scored his second goal of the season off a Geekie pass for a 3-0 lead.
“That line was probably our best line tonight,” said forward Nino Niederreiter, who scored the Canes’ first goal. “They were constantly in the O-zone, got pucks in deep. It was probably the best game I’ve seen them play so far. I feel like they’re gaining confidence more and more, and they were really, really good tonight.”
Lorentz had 11:22 of ice time Tuesday after getting 11:30 in the 3-2 overtime loss to Tampa Bay on Monday in which the Canes were outplayed much of the night but pulled out a point.
“I’m proud of our line in that we responded the way we did after (Monday) night,” Lorentz said. “We kind of got hemmed in our end by their fourth line pretty much the whole game. We kind of looked ourselves in the mirror and before this one we got together and we said, ‘Hey, look, we have to be a lot better’ and I think we were.
“I was very happy with the way our line played tonight and we just have to keep that energy moving forward into Florida.”
Sounds like a veteran center, yes? Lorentz, a rookie, now has played 34 NHL games.
“They certainly held their own and obviously contributed,” Brind’Amour said. “It makes it easier, especially when there’s just so many games that we’re playing. Watching minutes is vital.”
Carolina Hurricanes vs. Florida Panthers
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: BB&T Center, Sunrise, Florida
Watch: BSSO (Bally)