ATLANTA -- With events increasingly in Carolina's favor of making the playoffs after Friday's 6-1 win over the Thrashers -- and it's possible the Hurricanes could even clinch before the puck drops on their season finale -- Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward was asked if he would like a night off Saturday.
"I haven't even thought about it," he said, "and refuse to even think about it."
Arguably a Hart Trophy candidate, Ward has started 36 out of the Hurricanes' last 37 games, including all 10 of their current 8-1-1 run that helped them surge into the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot on Friday.
With 91 points, the Hurricanes tied the New York Rangers, but they own all of the tiebreakers entering a Saturday that will resolve which team makes it and which doesn't. For the Rangers, it could be a second excruciating season in which they are eliminated in their last game of the season.
If they lose in regulation to New Jersey on Saturday afternoon, the Rangers are out. Even if the Rangers win, the Canes will still control their destiny when they host Tampa Bay on Saturday night on what is sure to be a raucous RBC Center. The Canes have 35 non-shootout wins and the Rangers have 34. Even with a tie in that category, Carolina controls the tiebreaker of head-to-head record.
Meanwhile, the Lightning, Carolina's opponent on Saturday night, are locked into the East's fifth spot and might not want to risk much entering the playoffs in terms of players getting injured.
"I don't know the answer to that," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "Because we'll all be dealing with things coming into the game. They've got enough high-end, world-class skill that they're going to play and play hard and everyone wants to go into the playoffs feeling good. I always find sometimes that those teams with the high-end skill are a little bit looser, are more dangerous because they're going to try some plays, they're going to try some things, and we'll all have to be ready for it."
The way Friday's game started, the Canes showed they were ready while Atlanta did not. The Thrashers, who were eliminated from the playoffs on April 2, were playing on back-to-back nights after a 3-0 win over the Rangers on Thursday in New York that opened the door to Carolina's being able to control its own playoff destiny.
The Hurricanes had an off-day on Thursday and scored twice in the game's first seven minutes.
Thrashers' defenseman Zach Bogosian lost a puck battle along the wall in the neutral zone and Carolina's Tuomo Ruutu started an odd-man rush the other way down the left wing. With Thrashers defenseman Johnny Oduya failing to cut off the passing lane, Ruutu fed Jeff Skinner for a one-timer from the slot and the rookie's 31st goal put Carolina up 1-0 at 3:03.
Thrasher-killer Erik Cole then scored at 6:15, ripping a wrist shot just inside the goalpipe's elbow above the glove hand of Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
To Atlanta's credit, the Thrashers did not fold completely. Carolina had a 35-second 5-on-3 later in the first, but Atlanta killed it.
However, Ron Hainsey was called for delay of game for shooting the puck over the glass at 18:47 of the first.
The penalty carried over into the second period and Hurricanes minute-munching defenseman Joni Pitkanen did his best Bobby Orr impersonation to make it 3-0. The big Finn split two defenseman and then roofed a quick wrister from close range on Pavelec after breaking in alone 32 seconds into the period.
Carolina scored three goals in a span of 2:28 in the third to blow the game open. Brandon Sutter converted a turnover by Thrashers wing Ben Maxwell along the wall to make it 4-0. Maxwell couldn't handle Dustin Byfuglien's clearing attempt from behind the net and the Canes' Chad LaRose stole it, feeding Sutter in the right circle. Sutter went far post at 5:22. Then Jussi Jokinen capitalized on disarray in front of the Thrashers' net, finding a loose puck, and scored to make it 5-0 at 1:18 later. Pavelec (26 saves) was so angry after the goal that he slammed his stick against the wall and it ricocheted out near the blue line.
The young goalie, who shut out the Rangers on Thursday and was honored Friday with the Thrashers' Three Stars of the Year Award, received a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, leading to Ruutu's goal at 7:50.
In explaining his actions, Pavelec said, "I feel like a loser, to be honest, in front of those people."
For the Hurricanes, who won the 2006 Stanley Cup and also made trips to the Cup Final in 2002 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009, it would be the small-market franchise's sixth playoff berth in 12 seasons since relocating from Hartford if they make it.
Remarkably, Cole's goal proved to be his fourth game-winner against the Thrashers this season. But after the game the veteran left wing -- one of five remaining members of Carolina's Cup-winning team, and one of two who have been re-acquired -- was more disappointed that Ward lost his shutout. Bryan Little scored for Atlanta with 38.9 seconds left in regulation.
"It's a 6-0 game," Cole said. "In my opinion, it's unfortunate we were unable to get Cam the shutout. … He's been our most valuable player."
For his part, Ward shrugged his shoulders.
"Yeah, we played a really solid game," said Ward, who made 18 saves. "It was a pretty quiet night for me the majority of the night and that's a credit to the guys. We competed really hard and we saw what they did to the Rangers, so we had to be ready for their best, and fortunately we had a step on them for the majority of the night."
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