RALEIGH, N.C. -- After spending more than half the season at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the playoff odds remain stacked against the surging Carolina Hurricanes. There are still three teams to climb over in the Eastern Conference, and those teams are down to single digits in games remaining.
Yet, there is something about this Carolina team. It just doesn't flinch.
The Hurricanes grabbed an early lead against the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers at PNC Arena on Wednesday and hung on for a 3-1 victory -- a season-high fourth straight. Carolina pulled within five points of the idle Washington Capitals, who now have one game in hand on Carolina. The Hurricanes would also need to leap over Buffalo and Winnipeg to reach the playoffs.
"At the All-Star game, we had a meeting," said Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller. "We said to the guys, this is when the big boys come out to play and where you've got to step up. Our guys have been doing that since then. They're battling and they're not going away. We'll give it all we've got every game and see where we end up at the end of the year."
Since the All-Star break, Carolina has posted a 12-5-6 mark. The biggest factor in the team's resurgence has been the play of captain Eric Staal. After a dreadful first half of the season, the Carolina captain has accounted for 12 goals and 30 points in the 23 games since the break.
His two goals against the Panthers came on the heels of a two-goal effort in a 4-3 comeback victory in Winnipeg on Sunday.
"He's not a vocal guy, but he leads by example," Muller said. "I think he knew that for us to have any chance to be in this type of race, he's the guy that has to lead the team. But he's doing it playing his game. He's a big body, he skates. He's simplified his game."
Staal opened the scoring in the first minute of the game, scoring on a centering pass that deflected off Florida defenseman Jason Garrison. He scored again in the third period on a short-side shot past Jose Theodore that gave the Hurricanes the final 3-1 margin.
"We're playing as a team and we're playing for each other," Staal said. "We'll continue to do that and look forward to a huge weekend for us."
The Panthers saw their five-game winning streak come to an end. After a 2-1 win in Philadelphia Tuesday night, Florida looked out-of-sych at times.
"That was certainly not our expectation, trying to play a loose game," said Florida coach Kevin Dineen, whose team settled for a lone goal from Tomas Fleischmann. "I felt we needed to be more patient in areas that have been strengths for us. Our board play and special teams were an issue tonight, but overall, it was just the jump and enthusiam that was certainly leaning towards the home team."
If the Hurricanes were a little more invigorated than the Panthers, they owed some of it to Joni Pitkanen. The veteran defenseman returned to the lineup after missing 44 games due to a concussion and knee surgery. He gave his team a lift when his blistering slapshot staked Carolina to a 2-0 lead in the second period.
"I don't remember the last time I was this nervous before a game," Pitkanen admitted. "The first period, the game felt so fast. (Then) I started feeling more comfortable."
Pitkanen has always been an important figure on the Carolina blue line, often logging heavy minutes and taking responsibility for skating the puck out of the defensive zone. Almost like a welcome-back gesture, Pitkanen's score was gift-wrapped by Tuomo Ruutu, who left a drop pass at the top of the left circle for his fellow Finn.
"It's been tough being away from the rink and seeing the games on TV and coming here sitting in the press box," Pitkanen said. "The team is playing great the last three months. We have eight games left, and everything is possible. We'll see where we go."
That's been the common refrain for the Hurricanes. The playoffs are still a long shot, but maybe that's why Carolina remains so loose. Until the postseason math looks a little more doable, the Hurricanes seem content to play a team game and ride their captain -- with a bit of help from Cam Ward, who stopped 30 shots to record his third straight win in the net.
"It was another strong effort on our part tonight against another tough team," said Ward. "Let's keep this team rolling."