RALEIGH, N.C. – Glen Wesley was discussing the reasons behind the Carolina Hurricanes’ recent slump when someone reached out to shake his hand.
“Can’t do that,” the veteran defenceman said, his hands squarely in his lap. Nothing personal, but some Hurricanes have a good reason to keep their hands to themselves.
Carolina’s roster has been crippled partly because of a nasty flu virus that seemingly claims a new player each day and has contributed to an irksome slide of losses in six of eight games that has decimated its Southeast Division lead.
No wonder that as the Hurricanes head into this critical stretch, they’re trying to stay germ-free.
“This is not your typical sniffles,” coach Peter Laviolette said Monday. “These guys are tough guys who can play through just about anything, and they are down and out.”
Defenceman Niclas Wallin, the latest illness victim, is staying home from Tuesday night’s game at Toronto, Laviolette said. Four players who missed Saturday’s 5-4 loss to Colorado – forwards Ray Whitney and Trevor Letowski, defenceman Wade Brookbank and Wesley – skated Monday and could play against the Maple Leafs, though it’s unclear how close to 100 per cent they’ll be.
“Unless there’s a setback, you will see some of them back,” Laviolette said.
The spate of sicknesses has given those same old “How do you feel?” questions an entirely new meaning. As few as seven players have yet to contract the nagging illness, Wesley said.
The bug first infected his chest, then raided his sinuses and caused an infection, causing him to miss three straight games and earn a 24-hour spot on injured reserve, a move made retroactive to Jan. 5.
“I’ve never seen anything like this happen on a team,” Wesley said.
To fill the holes in the roster, general manager Jim Rutherford shuttled several players between the Hurricanes and their American Hockey League affiliate in Albany – most notably, forward Brandon Nolan. The son of Islanders coach Ted Nolan was called up and sent down three times last week.
“The mystery of it all, trying to figure it out from day to day – that’s why these guys have been getting sent down and called up so frequently,” Laviolette said. “We don’t have guys on the (injured list). We don’t know when it’s going to end, and we don’t know when guys are going to be getting back in the lineup and playing.”
In addition to its ill players, Carolina can’t wait for its injured skaters to return. Centre Matt Cullen (concussion), right wing Scott Walker (knee) and defenceman Bret Hedican (knee) were back on the ice, though Laviolette said they aren’t ready to skate in games yet.
But it’s clear the Hurricanes, losers of three straight, need a reversal if they’re to remain in control of the mediocre Southeast. They will enter the Toronto game with 48 points, two ahead of Atlanta. If the post-season started today, they would be seeded third in the Eastern Conference by virtue of their division lead.
In any other division, however, Carolina would be fighting Boston and the New York Rangers for the No. 8 and final spot.
“We’re still a first-place team, and we haven’t played as well as we want to,” left wing Cory Stillman said. “Obviously, the gap’s closing a little, but we have an opportunity to get healthy now, and we can win hockey games. That’s just a mentality that we’ve got to get back to.”