The Carolina Hurricanes have tightened their grip on the Southeast Division thanks to a season-high four-game winning streak.
The surging Hurricanes look to keep that momentum going Wednesday when they visit the Chicago Blackhawks - the teams' first meeting in more than two years.
Carolina (37-29-5) has gone 10-2-1 since Feb. 12, winning all four games this month to open a seven-point lead over Washington and Florida in the Southeast. Right wing Scott Walker gave the Hurricanes their most recent victory, scoring 2:50 into overtime for a 4-3 win over Buffalo on Saturday.
"We wanted to push that gap further, wanted to keep winning games, but at the same time we've got to be focused here," center Eric Staal told the Hurricanes' official Web site. "We like the way we're playing. We're playing hard, we're playing smart and we need to keep this roll going."
Staal - the Hurricanes' leader with 33 goals and 67 points - and defenseman Joe Corvo each finished with two assists for the Hurricanes, winners of seven of their last eight. They also have their longest win streak since a five-game run from Dec. 16-26, 2006.
Carolina has 11 games left, but already appears poised to win its second Southeast title in three years and return to the playoffs after missing out last season - one year after winning the 2006 Stanley Cup.
The Hurricanes can continue increasing their division lead with Cam Ward in net. He made 27 saves on Sunday en route to his season high-tying fourth straight win, and improved to 7-1-0 with a 2.48 goals-against average in his last eight starts.
Ward, though, has never faced Chicago (33-30-7) and is just 0-3-0 with a 3.40 GAA in three starts against Central Division opponents.
He might be eased by the fact the Hurricanes have dominated the series of late, going 6-0-0 with a tie since the Blackhawks came away with a 2-1 victory in Carolina on April 3, 1999. The teams last met on Dec. 13, 2005, when the Hurricanes posted a 5-3 win at home.
|Now in his third NHL season, Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward has never before faced the Chicago Blackhawks. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)|
The Hurricanes, who play four of their next five games on the road, have won three straight at the United Center, most recently a 3-2 victory on March 17, 2004.
Chicago returns home after a 3-1 loss at NHL-leading Detroit on Tuesday. Rene Bourque scored the lone goal for the Blackhawks, who were outshot 47-20 after scoring five times on 38 chances in Sunday's overtime loss to Edmonton.
Rookie goaltender Corey Crawford's season-high 44 saves kept the Blackhawks in the game.
"He was outstanding," Blackhawks coach Denis Savard said of Crawford. "He gave us a chance to win."
It is unknown if Savard will stick with Crawford, who has just three NHL starts, against Carolina. Backup Patrick Lalime has started eight of the last 10 games in place of No. 1 goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin (back spasms).
Lalime is 11-4-0 with three ties, two shutouts and a 1.80 GAA in 18 all-time starts versus the Hurricanes.
Chicago, which has dropped three straight since a 10-3-1 stretch, is one of several teams vying for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference. The Blackhawks have to make up seven points and overtake five teams over their final 12 games to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2002.
Current Blackhawks right wing Craig Adams had two goals and an assist for Carolina the last time these teams played each other.