*Note: For the sake of this entry, we're assuming the Hurricanes will make the playoffs. Please ignore, Hockey Gods*
There's a reason hockey fans say the Stanley Cup is the hardest team trophy to win. No professional sport — not the NFL, not Major League Baseball, and certainly not the NBA — has the intensity and force of the play ratcheted up quite like the NHL. Otherwise soft players start finishing all their checks. High-flying forwards come down the wing with an extra gear that no one knew they had. Goalies sprawl and stop shots while seemingly defying physics.
There's nothing like playoff hockey.
The good news for the Carolina Hurricanes is the majority of their team knows what it means to play through the postseason grind. Several won a Cup in Raleigh just three seasons ago. Veteran Scott Walker, who surprisingly has just 11 games of playoff experience, will know what to do when the field whittles down to 16. Sergei Samsonov, Joe Corvo, Patrick Eaves — all three have been to the Cup Finals.
But there are question marks among those who play big roles.
Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg haven't seen the NHL playoffs since 2006 and 2003, respectively. Anton Babchuk has never laced up that time of year, though his name is on the Cup thanks to his regular-season contributions with the Canes in 2005-06. Jussi Jokinen was part of two first-round exits with Dallas in 2006 and 2007. He has just nine games of postseason experience.
But without a doubt, the biggest question marks surround arguably Carolina's top most rugged players: Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu.
There's no denying that both have what it takes to compete in April and beyond. Ruutu is ninth among forwards in the league in hits (219) this season, and he seems to fear nothing on the ice (anyone recall his Child's Play's Chucky impersonation in his Carolina debut?). Same goes for Gleason, who is 13th among NHL d-men in hits (165) and first in "mess with my teammates and I'll remove your head from your shoulders" glares.
But last night's game against the Rangers illustrated why the Canes could have a problem in Round 1 of the playoffs. Because while Gleason and Ruutu both bring their old-time hockey efforts each regular-season outing, no one knows if they can up the edge in their game while keeping under control.
Why don't we know? Because of three numbers: 320, 328 and 0.
The first two are how many career games Gleason and Ruutu, respectively, have under their belts. The final number is their total combined playoff appearances.
Ruutu showed last night why this could be an issue, taking a couple "trying too hard" penalties in the early going in an important, playoff-atmosphere game. No one ever faults a player for trying too hard, but come the playoffs one power play can be the difference between winning and losing. Gleason's game is more controllable than Ruutu's — his grit penalties usually come from altercations like standing up for a teammate after the whistle, rather than ill-advised hits or goalie interference (a borderline call, in my opinion) penalties, like Ruutu's infractions from last night — but still teeters on the edge from time to time.
But therein lies the rub. Everyone would love to add a physical, hard-working presence in their lineup. How about one up front and one on defense? All the better. But Ruutu and Gleason will need to find a way to harness their increased intensity and utilize it to make them even harder to play against instead, not more likely to get them some penalty box time. Any coach who had Chris Pronger on their team can tell you so much.
Too much intensity — not too little — could be a complication for coach Paul Maurice, but he won't know until the puck drops in Game 1 of the opening round. What we do know is Gleason and Ruutu will be fast, hard and tough — and it's easier to control that than manufacture it.