New coach al­ters Canes’ course

Muller changed Carolina cul­ture

The Washington Times Daily - - Sports - BY STEPHENWHYNO

On the morn­ing of Nov. 28, it didn’t take more than a cou­ple of hours af­ter the Washington Cap­i­tals an­nounced the fir­ing of Bruce Boudreau and the hir­ing of Dale Hunter un­til the Carolina Hur­ri­canes made their coach­ing change.

While the Caps were try­ing to re­sus­ci­tate a sea­son that started with Stan­ley Cup as­pi­ra­tions, the Hur­ri­canes were look­ing to be­gin anew af­ter their list­less 8-134 start. Out was the af­fa­ble Paul Mau­rice; in was one of the most talked-about young coaches in hockey, Kirk Muller.

Carolina still is in last place in the South­east Di­vi­sion, but the Hur­ri­canes were 16-14-10 en­ter­ing last night’s game with Muller be­hind the bench.

“He’s kind of come in and set a new cul­ture up,” Hur­ri­canes de­fense­man Jamie Mcbain said. “One of his big key fo­cuses is ac­count­abil­ity to each other. Ob­vi­ously, I think we’ve def­i­nitely tried to work on that, and I think we’ve def­i­nitely im­proved on that.”

Boudreau stressed ac­count­abil­ity ear­lier this sea­son with the Cap­i­tals, but it was hard to change the habits of this veteran team with­out a new voice. Hunter’s mantra has been earn­ing ice time and try­ing to teach his play­ers us­ing a lot of video like he did with London (On­tario Hockey League).

For Muller, ev­ery day is an­other TAMPA BAY AT CAP­I­TALS Thurs­day: TV: Ra­dio: chance to teach.

“I think it doesn’t stop, to be hon­est with you. You’re con­stantly ad­dress­ing is­sues that you want to get bet­ter at,” said Muller, whose NHL play­ing ca­reer spanned 19 sea­sons. “I think over­all they know what’s ex­pected of them, and they know the iden­tity of our team now and what we’re af­ter and what we ex­pect from them. As far as cri­tiquing and work­ing on it and mak­ing it bet­ter, we’re still not where we want to be at.”

The Hur­ri­canes’ iden­tity is sim­ple. Even though depth isn’t a strong point, they rely on young play­ers such as de­fense­man Justin Faulk and cen­ter Jeff Skin­ner and vet­er­ans such as for­ward Chad Larose and de­fense­man Jaroslav Spacek to win bat­tles all over the ice. What they lack in tal­ent, they make up for in work ethic.

“They’re al­ways try­ing to out­work you,” Cap­i­tals for­ward Jay Bea­gle said. “And then they do have some skill up front that also makes them a hard team to play against.”

It doesn’t hurt to have Eric Staal, a rugged cen­ter who went into Tues­day night’s matchup on an 11-game point streak and rack­ing up eight goals and 14 as­sists in his past 14. But the 27-year-old strug­gled for much of the first half of the sea­son try­ing to find his de­fen­sive game.

On some teams, watch­ing the cap­tain and star player go through a tough stretch can be de­mor­al­iz­ing. Staal’s teammates said it was quite the op­po­site.

“If any­thing, you look at him a lit­tle bit more and re­spect him a lit­tle bit more be­cause ob­vi­ously his num­bers aren’t where he wants them to be,” Mcbain said. “When he was strug­gling, he was still bat­tling hard each and ev­ery night and do­ing things away from the puck, whether it was block­ing shots or mak­ing hits. Just do­ing ev­ery­thing he could, even when the puck wasn’t bounc­ing his way, to be a leader out there. And it’s def­i­nitely some­thing we look up to.”

That’s some­thing Muller has tried to in­still in a young team that knows he’s com­mit­ted to re­build­ing a fran­chise that isn’t far re­moved from a Stan­ley Cup. Play­ers said a new set of prac­tice habits has helped them ad­just.

“We’re a lot more ag­gres­sive in all three zones. He re­ally stresses we work as five, so you’re go­ing to see the de­fen­sive zone with five guys back and the neu­tral zone all five guys help­ing out each other,” de­fense­man Derek Joslin said. “We’re re­ally hound­ing the puck. I think it’s just the con­sis­tency in prac­tice of re­ally putting the pres­sure on us to learn the sys­tem and per­fect the sys­tem.”

In hunt­ing for a play­off spot, Washington still is try­ing to fig­ure out its iden­tity. De­fense­man Karl Alzner said on ra­dio last week that he and his teammates have gone through “a lot of trial and er­ror” to fig­ure out what sys­tem works for them. That’s what can hap­pen to a team that goes through a coach­ing change.

“We’re still, to this day, we still make mis­takes and stuff. It’s tough,” Alzner said Tues­day. “It’s al­ways tough when you change any­thing — per­son­nel or sys­tems — dur­ing the sea­son. You’ve got to just go with the flow and fig­ure it out. I think that now we are start­ing to fig­ure it out.”

And though the de­sired re­sults might be fur­ther away for the Hur­ri­canes, Carolina seems to be on the path to­ward play­ing Muller hockey well into the fu­ture.

“I knew be­fore I took the job it would be a lot of work,” Muller said. “But the guys, I love their en­thu­si­asm. I love the way they’re try­ing. I see a lot of good signs that I think will keep us go­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

An­dray Blatche was anx­ious. Af­ter miss­ing more than a month with a strained calf, the Washington Wiz­ards power for­ward fi­nally was mak­ing his re­turn to the court. He was ready, as he put it, “to start ballin’ again.”

But his re­cep­tion from the Ver­i­zon Cen­ter crowd was less than what he hoped for.

On Satur­day, the Wiz­ards hosted the Cleve­land Cava­liers, and Blatche was booed the mo­ment he en­tered the game and nearly ev­ery time he touched the ball.

“You hate it,” Wiz­ards coach Randy Wittman said as he strug­gled to find words for the way Blatche is be­ing treated.

“Like I said, the fans . . . I’d never do some­thing like that to a team I’m root­ing for, but that’s their . . . it is what it is. If you walked into the arena ev­ery day and that hap­pened to you, you wouldn’t feel too good about your­self.”

The Wiz­ards won, and for Blatche, it took some of the sting out of the chilly re­cep­tion. But Mon­day against the Golden State War­riors, the boos were worse, and so was Blatche’s per­for­mance. His game not only was rusty, but ten­ta­tive, and showed signs that the boos were get­ting to him.

Rashard Lewis, a 14-year NBA veteran, said he’s never seen any­thing like it.

“That’s tough, es­pe­cially be­ing booed in front of your home crowd fans, but he’s got to play through it,” Lewis said. “I think as a team we have to rally around him.”

Mau­rice Evans, a 13-year NBA veteran, also has seen some dis­grun­tled fans in his time, but like Lewis, said that this a whole new level.

“I haven’t seen a player booed like that, much less at home,” Evans said. “I’ve seen a few guys, seen teams that I’ve been on, [where] we’ve been booed when we’ve given a poor ef­fort. But this is just some­thing [else]. We have got to help him out a lit­tle bit.”

Evans sug­gested that the team use Blatche more in the low post and not have him on the wing shoot­ing jumpers. He said that play­ing more to his team­mate’s strength could im­prove Blatche’s game and si­lence the boos.

Iron­i­cally, Blatche also stated his pref­er­ence to play in the post more on open­ing night and was soundly crit­i­cized for the ap­pear­ance that he was call­ing out then-coach Flip Saun­ders.

But with the NBA trad­ing dead­line March 15 and Blatche the sub­ject of ru­mors, the best way for his game to im­prove might be for him to be play­ing in a dif­fer­ent uni­form. Blatche is in the sec­ond year of a con­tract ex­ten­sion, and he’s sched­uled to make $35 mil­lion for the next five sea­sons.

Af­ter Mon­day’s game, Blatche let his guard down and ac­knowl­edged that the boos are get­ting hard to ig­nore.

“You’re home and peo­ple that’s sup­posed to have your back don’t have your back,” Blatche said. “In­stead of en­cour­ag­ing you to get bet­ter, they push you down and hope you do worse. It’s not only hurt­ing me, it’s hurt­ing my teammates. I’m just hope­fully try­ing to fight it and over­come.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wiz­ards for­ward An­dray Blatche can’t seem to catch a break with the fans, and some­times the ref­er­ees, at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter dur­ing Washington’s 8-29 start.

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