by Kate Shefte
The Hurricanes completed a home-and-home sweep of the Nashville Predators Sunday afternoon to close out their preseason schedule, tying it up 3-3 and soothing panicky fans who were worried that Carolina’s two pathetic-looking losses to Washington – 4-1 and 5-2, respectively – were a sign of things to come. The ’Canes dropped their first three games, but once they got a team on the ice that will more closely resemble the one on opening night, they started to pull it together. Eric Staal found his way onto the score sheet without overexerting himself: Two of his three goals were empty-netters. Ray Whitney, newbie Brandon Sutter, and Ryan Bayda—who has made the trip from Albany to Raleigh and back so many times he could probably pilot the plane himself—all scored in the Nashville series, and Anton Babchuk returned from injury in time to add two assists in Thursday’s game, something the defenseman is not usually known for. Best of all, Cam Ward dusted off the cobwebs and a few shaky preseason performances and recorded his first shutout since March 12 at Chicago. In other exciting news, Rod Brind’Amour returned more quickly than anticipated after undergoing knee surgery (did anyone honestly expect anything else from him?) and logged 15:04 of ice time.
With the roster, for the most part, finalized and a promising finish to the preseason under their pads, hopefully the ‘Canes can get the strong start they desperately need (winning their season opener for the first time in half a decade wouldn’t hurt, either.)
However, that strong start will be tougher achieve now that Carolina has lost a huge chunk of their grit and motivation in physical, penalty-killing, goal-scoring veteran winger extraordinaire Scott Walker, who had surgery on his left hand this morning. Walker presumably injured his hand in yesterday’s game, and will miss six weeks of action. This one of the worst things that could happen to the ’Canes at this point. Walker came over from Nashville two seasons ago, and quickly established himself as a fan favorite with his gruff, cheerful demeanor and willingness to drop the gloves for his teammates at a time when Carolina was sorely lacking in team toughness. Walker is one of the very few vets on the team not to have won the cup, and the guy never seems to take a night off, even when the rest of the team looks flat. Although Walker hasn’t put up huge numbers as a ‘Cane, he has almost instant chemistry with whomever he’s with. With all of the roles he fills, he’s a tough one to replace.
Not that the ’Canes aren’t trying. Assistant GM Ron Francis announced shortly after Walker’s surgery, saying that free agent tryout Dan LaCouture was signed to a two-way deal that will pay him $475,000 on the NHL level or $50,000 should he be sent down to Albany. Journeyman LaCouture had a strong showing at camp, overshadowing ’Canes hero Jeff O’Neill and the surprisingly good Matt Murley, and earned his way from a free agent nobody to contract-toting somebody—something the Hurricanes brass doesn’t allow often. LaCouture will be used to patch up Carolina’s offense, or put on hold in case another player goes down. Matt Cullen and Ray Whitney look healthy enough to play, and Tuomo Ruutu is expected back this week, although it is unknown whether he will make it in time for Friday’s game against Florida.