'Canes entrenched as NHL's worst team

RALEIGH - Matt Cullen greeted the all-too-familiar question with an uncomfortable chuckle clearly rooted in disappointment: How have things gone this wrong this quickly for the Carolina Hurricanes?

"I have no idea," the center said Monday. "I don't know. We've tried to figure that out a lot."

The season's just over two months old, and already it is looking like a lost year for the Hurricanes, a team that used a surprisingly deep playoff run late last spring to return to prominence and figured to stay there for a while.

Instead, they came up with another surprise, one nobody in their dressing room wanted: According to the standings and the stats, the Hurricanes are the worst team in the NHL - by far.

"It's extremely frustrating," forward Scott Walker said. "I don't think anybody in here would say that it isn't."

What makes it so unexpected is that the group that rallied to reach the Eastern Conference final mostly stayed together during the offseason with the hope of making another push toward the franchise's second Stanley Cup.

But ever since Walker's overtime goal in Game 7 beat Boston and sent the Hurricanes to the East final, it's been a calamitous drop downhill.

First, they were swept in that series by eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh. Now, this.

Carolina has an NHL-worst 20 points and entered Monday night's games in need of 10 - or, a long winning streak - just to escape the league's cellar. Only St. Louis (74) has fewer than the Hurricanes' 77 goals. At the other end of the ice, they've allowed an NHL-worst 117.

Their power-play unit converts 14.3 percent of its chances - 5 percentage points below the league average. They matched a club record last month with a winless streak that reached 14 games, and are 1-12-4 away from the RBC Cente. They finally won their first road game last week.

"Just because we're down right now, you can't be mentally down on the ice," Walker said. "You have to become a good team through all situations. ... We're trying to stay positive, trying to stay up as much as we can, because some guys, it does affect every second of your life, and you've got to try to get that out, or the next game, you'll be as bad or worse."

Part of the problem has been injuries, most notably to the two biggest names on the roster. All-Star center Eric Staal missed 10 games last month with an upper body injury, while former Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie Cam Ward was activated last week from the long-term injured list after missing 13 games with a sliced leg.

Not surprisingly, those struggles have led to personnel moves. Team officials said Carolina's top offseason acquisition, Aaron Ward, was placed on waivers Monday, and teams have 24 hours to claim the veteran defenseman who had been reacquired by the Hurricanes in a summertime trade with the Bruins.

So, what will it take to turn things around for the Hurricanes?

They need scoring punch. They need stronger defensive play. They need to stay healthy. They need to find a way to put the puck in the net when they have the man advantage.

And, most importantly, they need answers.

"For some reason, things kind of snowballed early in the year on us and put us in a tough spot, but I don't have an answer," Cullen said. "I don't think anybody in (the dressing room) has an answer."

The Hurricanes have had their moments, though they've been fleeting.

They rallied from three goals down last month to beat Toronto in a shootout, and last week they claimed their first win away from the RBC Center by beating Pittsburgh - the team that swept them from the East final - in a victory that prompted leading scorer Ray Whitney to say, "Certainly, we're not sipping champagne by any means, but it's a starting point."

And Carolina's morale got a boost last week by defenseman Tim Gleason's gutty effort at Washington. After taking a puck to the face, he had 30 stitches during the game, then returned to score the short-handed goal that tied the game and helped send it into overtime.