FOX SPORTS CAROLINAS (TV)—Players switch teams all the time in hockey. Free agents put themselves on the open market in droves every summer. Teams toss prospects over the fence in exchange for draft picks. At the trading deadline (on April 3, this year) it’s not uncommon for a player to change cities and then play his old team within a week. It’s the business, players say.

Alexander Semin, seen here in an earlier tilt with Tampa Bay, couldnt make a difference against his former team Tuesday night.
  • Photo by Chris Baird
  • Alexander Semin, seen here in an earlier tilt with Tampa Bay, couldn’t make a difference against his former team Tuesday night.

But these changes aren’t always run of the mill, and this is a big week for them for the Hurricanes. Last night, Alexander Semin played his first game back in Washington D.C. after seven years with the Capitals. And tomorrow night, Jordan Staal faces his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, for the first time in Raleigh.

Hopefully Staal’s reunion goes better than Semin’s.

Semin was booed every time he touched the puck on Tuesday at the Verizon Center. The Caps’ Troy Brouwer had fired up the negativity by dissing Semin’s work ethic to reporters on Monday.

“Some nights you didn’t even know if he was going to come to the rink,” Brouwer griped. “It’s tough to play alongside guys like those because you don’t know what you’re going to get out of them.”

Well, Semin is the fifth-leading scorer in Caps franchise history. But certainly, Brouwer’s 50-goal seasons must be imminent.

The negative vibes didn’t appear to affect Semin’s game much, but Braden Holtby, the Caps’ netminder, did. Holtby’s 33 saves kept the scoresheet clean. The Russian finished with four shots on goal, two misses and a -1. One of those shots was a shorthanded breakaway when the game was still scoreless, but Holtby parried Semin’s wrist shot with his glove. The Verizon Center crowd would have made an interesting noise had that shot gone in.

Semin’s night was par for the course for the punchless Canes, who are fraying badly with a depleted lineup. Jeff Skinner’s absence due to a concussion reduces the Canes offense to one line, which coach Kirk Muller tried to mitigate last night through line juggling. Jiri Tlusty started on the third line, moved up to the second in the middle of the game, and was restored to the top line with Semin and Eric Staal as the second period ended. Nothing clicked, though.

“Fatigue kicks in,” Muller said to reporters after the game. “Some guys are playing more minutes than they probably should, and it catches up.”

“We just couldn’t find our legs tonight,” Jordan Staal added.

We might need to start calling Carolina’s defense its green line. Marc-Andre Gragnani made his season debut, joining Ryan Murphy and Bobby Sanguinetti on a kiddie corps that found themselves hemmed in throughout the game while Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen and Jamie McBain heal. Murphy played his fifth game last night, the maximum allowed at the NHL level before the first year of his contract kicks in, which means he will likely be sent back to juniors. But then, he’s not looked out of place.

Justin Faulk stuck after excelling during a call-up and now he might be Carolina’s best defenseman. Perhaps 19-year-old Murphy should mature in Raleigh rather than Kitchener. His speed joining the rush is impressive. It’s not as easy a decision as Muller and general manager Jim Rutherford probably thought it would be.

The Canes have now lost four of five—two of those by shutout. They’re 0-5 against Southeast Division opponents. Bad stats, true. But they’re in first place.

Carolina’s 19 points are now matched by Tampa Bay and Winnipeg, with Florida just three back and the Caps four back. Washington’s at the bottom of the conference, but seems to be stirring. And a good week could put them in the division lead with the way this season is going. It’s hard to know whether to pull out the optimistic or pessimistic prose here.

So we’ll take this thing game by game. Perhaps things will change Thursday when the Penguins visit. Pittsburgh has been allowing goals—six to the Panthers on Tuesday night—but then they’ve been scoring them too.

Jordan Staal turned down a six-year extension in Pittsburgh for a higher spot on the Carolina depth chart. Without fail, he has centered the second line, and been on the first power-play unit. But he won’t have Jeff Skinner on his wing to show off to his former teammates. Jussi Jokinen and Pat Dwyer—or some of the Charlotte Checkers milling about the lower lines right now—will be there instead.

With Staalsian reticence, he’ll deny missing his former team. But with the concussed Evgeni Malkin out of the Penguins’ lineup indefinitely, he knows he would have been in the exact same slots right now for Pittsburgh, a team headed for their annual playoff run.

Don’t look back, Jordan. In a division in which four points separates the number-three playoff seed and the conference cellar, only look forward.