The Carolina Hurricanes wrapped up their first practice of the preseason Thursday by gathering in a ring at center ice.
They skated into the circle two at a time and went one-on-one for loose pucks in what's essentially hockey's version of the Oklahoma drill.
The message was clear: If the Hurricanes are going to finally get back to the playoffs, they need to get tougher.
"A huge part of the game is winning those one-on-one battles," captain Eric Staal said.
The Hurricanes formally returned to the ice with a hole on the blue line and an eye on the postseason. Among their priorities: building their toughness and finding a way to replace injured defenseman Joni Pitkanen.
The first day of practice game one day after the team learned Pitkanen will miss the season because the heel he broke in April has been slow to heal.
"Obviously, it's pretty disappointing that he's out for the whole year," defenseman Justin Faulk said. "He's a great player and obviously we wish he could be here. He does a lot for us. But I think someone's going to have to step up. There's a whole there for someone to fill."
Pitkanen broke his left heel in a game against Washington in which he raced down the ice while trying to beat an icing call.
He missed the final 13 games, and general manager Jim Rutherford said last week that the veteran defenseman might not be ready to start the season.
Now the Hurricanes hope someone can emerge during camp to fill Pitkanen's spot. He ranked second among the team's defensemen with an average of nearly 23 minutes of ice time.
One of Carolina's new faces — defenseman Andrej Sekera, who was acquired from Buffalo in a draft-day trade — hopes he can help fill the void.
"I will try to do my best and try to play my game and see how it is and how it goes, and if the coaches want to give me a new opportunity to prove something, I'm happy with it," Sekera said.
The Hurricanes have plenty to prove as a team, too.
The realigned NHL has eliminated the Southeast Division and placed Carolina in a much more difficult division with both New York teams, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington and New Jersey.
On paper, that appears to make it tough for the Hurricanes to claim their first playoff spot since 2009. Among Eastern Conference teams, only the Atlanta-Winnipeg franchise has not made the postseason in that span.
Carolina went from leading the division last year to near the bottom of the conference following a brutal three-points-in-five-weeks stretch.
"It's not a good feeling, not making the playoffs," Faulk said. "I don't think that sits well with anyone if you don't make the playoffs and you're not winning games. But it's a new year and we're pretty confident with the team we have in here and the 48 guys that are in camp to put together a good run."
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