One win, and they’re in.
That’s the scenario the Hurricanes are facing tonight as they host the Pittsburgh Penguins at the RBC Center. Thanks to Florida losing to Atlanta last night, the Canes can clinch a playoff spot with a regulation victory.
“Back then it was how many points do you think you’re going to need, and as it closes now you know how many points you’re going to need to close out a couple of teams,” said Coach Paul Maurice. “I think both teams feel a little more excited after the results from last night’s games and can put themselves in a great position tonight.”
The Penguins aren’t likely to make anything easy for the Canes. Although Carolina is the hottest team in the NHL with seven straight victories and a franchise record 10 in a row at home, Pittsburgh (7-1-2 in their last 10) isn’t far behind. It’s a fitting collision course between two teams that have dramatically improved their chances of participating in the postseason over the last several weeks.
“Both teams tonight are in almost identical spots,” said Maurice. “They have a little bit of breathing room, but not so much that they’re feeling overly confident. At the same time, both teams have played very well for a long time now, so it will be a good, fast game tonight.”
In a game that arrived with a similar billing, the Canes defeated the streaking Ottawa Senators, who at the time were rolling like no other team in the league, 2-1 last week.
The Penguins currently trail the Canes by just one point in the standings, although Carolina has played one more game. With a win, the Hurricanes could again leapfrog Philadelphia, 8-5 winners over Toronto last night, for the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed.
Even if they do wrap up a playoff spot with games to spare, the Canes will want to keep that momentum going into the postseason, where home ice advantage could be a big boost with the way the team has been playing at the RBC Center.
“If you’re winning down the stretch, it’s a good feeling going into the playoffs,” said Eric Staal, who will go head-to-head with one of his brothers for the second straight game tonight. “For us, we’ve kind of been playing that playoff hockey for the last little while now with the tight games that we’ve won. Our goaltending has been very good, and those are all things you need in the playoffs.”
The Penguins are on the front end of an especially difficult back-to-back set (they’re game in Florida tomorrow is an early 5 p.m. start) and will start No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury tonight. This is Pittsburgh’s first road game following a franchise-record eight-game homestand.
Matt Cullen is the only player on the Hurricanes’ injury report, and he will remain out tonight. Ruslan Fedotenko, one of the Penguins’ secondary scorers behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, is probable to return from a shoulder injury he picked up in the team’s last game vs. New Jersey.
Speaking of the Penguins’ two perennial MVP candidates, Crosby has a 12-game point streak (7-13-20), while Malkin has a six-game run (4-7-11). Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour has points in seven straight (3-7-10).