He's been a head coach for just a couple of weeks, but Kirk Muller thought his Carolina Hurricanes had finally turned the corner.
The Canes came into Winnipeg Friday having won their first game in eight starts, beating Edmonton on Wednesday 5-3. For Muller, who played 19 seasons in the NHL and is into his first NHL head coaching job, it was a sign the team had finally adjusted to his system. "I think we are starting to see the identity and the type of team I want," Muller said prior to the game.
This better not be the team he wants.
The Hurricanes got thrashed by the Winnipeg Jets at the MTS Centre, losing 4-2 and never looking like much of a threat until near the end of the game when it was too late. For most of the game they were outshot, out muscled and out played so badly that at one point Carolina had just as many men in the penalty box as they had on the ice.
Carolina remains one of the most perplexing clubs in the NHL. The team is loaded with young talent -- Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, Justin Faulk, Brandon Sutter -- who just can't figure out how to win (Skinner was ill and didn't play Friday). They couldn't under former coach Paul Maurice, who was fired on Nov. 28, and they aren't doing much better under Muller despite his unflagging optimism and happy, constantly-smiling demeanour. The new coach is now 1-5.
"We've got to learn from it. We've got to come out better," Muller said after the game.
"Some of the young kids, it's a process of learning. That's what we're doing here. Every day we've got to learn and take something from it."
Carolina fell to 9-18-4, with 22 points, leaving them last in the Southeast Division.
As for the Jets, they have surprised many in the NHL and are now on a four game winning streak. They are also just one place out of a playoff spot with 30 points and a record of 13-11-4. And they've beaten Carolina three times.
"I thought we were prepared to play from the onset of the game," Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said afterward. "It looks like we are getting a good hold of what we need to do. We're still going to hit our bumps somewhere, but I just think mentally we're in a good place."
Noel is also back to talking about the Jets not just making the playoffs, but moving up the standing. "I sense that we want to keep climbing," he said. "I think if we get to eighth place, I think that we feel that we can continue to go, not sit at eighth maybe. But we'll see."
The Jets took hold of Friday's game early. Defenceman Dustin Byfuglien scored just 34 seconds into the game while standing behind the net. He fired a shot that Hurricane goalie Cam Ward must have thought was supposed to be a pass out front. Instead the puck hit Ward's right leg and went in.
"I thought Byfuglien's goal was just a sharp intelligent play on his part," Noel said.
"You might be asking what he's doing behind the net, but that's okay. That's how he plays sometimes, defending both nets."
Joked Jets' forward Evander Kane: "I think his chances are higher from behind the net than they are from the blue line."
Kane got on the board as well, scoring just four minutes later on a long wrist shot that Ward did not appear to see. By the end of the first period, the Jets had a 2-0 lead and had fired 19 shots at Ward, a season high total for one period. Carolina had put just seven shots on Chris Mason, who was starting for Ondrej Pavelec.
"That's obviously not the start we wanted, not the first period we wanted," The Hurricanes' Sutter said after the game.
Considering his limited action, Mason looked strong throughout the game making several key stops including one on a breakaway by Patrick Dwyer. Mason has played in just six games this season, including all three wins against Carolina.
"Personally it feels great," Mason after the game. "You don't play, you don't get the ice time on a constant basis, you always have to deal with those jitters and little pre-game butterflies and things like that. Once you get in the game they usually disappear."
He added that the Jets are "starting to understand what makes us successful and understand the right way to play hockey."
Things got worse for Carolina in the second. They took a series of penalties and at one point had three men in the penalty box. The Jets made them pay, scoring on two power plays barely a minute apart with Tim Stapleton getting one and Bryan Little the other.
By then the notoriously-loud crowd at the MTS Centre roared and fans chanted "Cam Ward". Almost on cue, Ward was replaced by Mike Murphy. He left the game having allowed four goals on 30 shots.
Murphy fared better, by at least not allowing a goal.
The Jets outshot the Hurricanes 37 to 25.
The Hurricanes finally showed some life in the third, getting a goal by Faulk on a long blast from near the blue line that appeared to deflect off a Jet player standing in front of the net. Sutter scored a few minutes later on a power play, tipping in a shot by Tim Gleason. But the brief come back was too late to make a real difference.
"At 4-0, you'd like to be out for blood and really just try to dominate the play," said Jet forward Blake Wheeler. "Their goals were little break downs in coverage, nothing major,.
I think for the most part we did a good job in the third period."
Winnipeg now heads to Detroit for a game Saturday that will test the players new-found confidence. "This is a good time for us to go in there," Noel said. "That's going to be a big measuring stick."
Meanwhile Carolina and Muller have three days to contemplate their future and figure out what's going on before heading to Toronto for a game Tuesday.
"We've got to continue to work on stuff," Muller said.