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Flu-ridden Canes try to stay germ-free as lead in Southeast slips away

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 defenseman 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."

Defenseman 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, defenseman Wade Brookbank and Wesley -- skated Monday and could play against the Maple Leafs, though it's
unclear how close to 100 percent 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. Center Matt Cullen (concussion), right
wing Scott Walker (knee) and defenseman 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 postseason 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."