Although their playoff chances took a hit over the weekend, not much will change in how the Hurricanes go about their business for the time being.
Saturday’s loss to Tampa Bay, combined with Buffalo’s win against New Jersey, has the Canes facing a five-point gap between their current position and playoff position with just seven games remaining. A head-to-head victory against the Sabres on April 3 would erase some of that, but they’ll need favorable results from around the league in addition to their own games.
In that sense, every game will be crucial, but that's nothing new for a team that’s been fighting for its life for the last several months.
“I don’t think it changes what we’re trying to do,” said Brandon Sutter. “We feel like we’re playing well so it’s frustrating that we’ve fallen behind, but we’ve just got to keep going and hope for the best.”
“It’s not clear cut and dry yet for who’s out and who’s in,” said coach Paul Maurice. “Five points is a lot to make up, but it’s not as much as when you have a head-to-head with them, which is good."
Saturday’s loss in Tampa Bay broke a three-game winning streak for the Canes, although that previous run still didn’t allow them to gain ground on the surging Sabres. A few isolated mistakes hurt them badly in their second game against the Lightning, but overall, they feel like they’re playing well enough to go on the type of run that would make things interesting down the stretch.
“(Tampa Bay) had two goals on lucky bounces and turnovers and another on the power play, but we didn’t really didn’t give them much at five-on-five,” said Sutter of Saturday’s game.
“We’ve just got to make sure that our focus isn’t on the standings, but it’s playing the kind of hockey that we’ve played the last two games that I liked an awful lot,” said Maurice.
In order to make up ground, the Canes will hope for better results on both sides of back-to-back games. The team currently boasts a 11-3-4 record in the first halves, but is just 6-11-1 in the second. That kind of split isn’t unusual, but with six of their remaining seven games part of back-to-back sets, improvement in the second day will be needed.
This week, the Canes visit Washington Tuesday before returning home to face Montreal Wednesday. Even though the sixth-place Canadiens sit seven points ahead of the Canes, they've been shut out in three consecutive losses, making them as likely of a target as any other team.
One positive for the Canes is what appears to be a healthy lineup. While Joe Corvo, Tim Gleason, Eric Staal and Cam Ward did not practice Monday, all should be available to face the Capitals. Joni Pitkanen, who missed Saturday’s game with an illness, practiced Monday.
Jamie McBain is also set to play both games of the back-to-back set if called upon after a successful return to the lineup over the weekend. While physical recovery is the most important thing, the 23-year-old blueliner added that he might be feeling more confident in his overall game now than before his two-week shoulder injury.
“Anytime you come back you’re a little bit nervous, but once I took that first hit I felt a lot more comfortable with where I was,” he said. “Having that birds-eye view (while sidelined) really helps you learn some things from other players that you maybe wouldn’t notice on the ice. Sometimes you have more times to make plays than you realize.”
With the team expected to have 13 forwards and seven defensemen in Washington, Maurice is looking at two healthy scratches, although he didn’t specify who those might be.
“We’ll make a decision tomorrow,” he said.