In an 82-game season, it’s difficult to pigeonhole a five-game segment as one of the most crucial stretches a team faces.
But, with just 25 games – 16 of which will be played on the road – left in the season and the Carolina Hurricanes sitting five points out of a Metropolitan Division playoff spot with games in hand, the team’s upcoming season-long, five-game road swing could very well be a season-defining trip.
“We’re jumping right into it,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “This is a huge road trip for us to start off.”
“When you look at it, five-game segments are pretty important any way you look at it – first five, last five, somewhere in the middle,” defenseman Jay Harrison said. “No doubt, it’s a crucial part of the season not unlike any other.”
As has been the case for the Hurricanes, though, they aren’t framing it as a whole but rather tackling each individual game one day at a time.
“We want it to be a good trip. Our main focus here is going to be day-by-day as we go down the stretch,” forward Eric Staal said. “I don’t think we’re going to worry about the big picture because that’s not going to help us.”
“I think the best way to look at it is to look at it as five one-game road trips and approach each game with what we can control and what we can do, and not worry about the long-term trends,” Harrison said. “You can only win one at a time.”
“We’re not going to throw numbers at them of what we feel the magic number is going to be to make it,” Muller said. “We just have to focus on every day, one day at a time, whether it’s a practice or a game.”
But for argument’s sake, let’s consider what it might take to qualify for the postseason, something the coaching staff has already calculated internally. Currently, the Philadelphia Flyers, who occupy the third and final divisional playoff spot (in this case, let’s ignore the wild card factor, as spots could be claimed by teams in either division), are on pace for about 92 points. 93 points, then, would be a reasonable playoff-qualifying point total. The Canes sit with 61 points, which means they would need 32 points (a 16-9-0 record, or some combination of that) in the final 25 games.
“It’s crucial. We’re looking at somewhere around 94 points … to get into the playoffs. In saying that, you can just do the math,” Muller said. “We’ve got to get off to a good start. We have to feel good about ourselves. We’re fresh, and for the first time in a while we’re all healthy.”
“We know we’ve got a lot of hockey. It’s going to be important to get our rest when we need it and put it all out there. We’ve missed the playoffs here as an organization too many times in the recent years, and we want to push and give everything we have here to give the fans an opportunity to see a playoff game,” goaltender Cam Ward said. “We know anything can happen once you’re in the playoffs. It’s just a matter of getting in.”
With that in mind, the Canes have utilized practice time over the last five days to prepare for their frantically-paced playoff push, which will feature 25 games over a 48-day period.
“First and foremost it was just about getting the pace and lungs back with some work off ice as well. Today, we got some more bodies back so we did a little bit more system stuff,” Staal said. “The biggest thing for the next 25 games for us and every team is the detail part of the game – the defensive side, the little bit extra you need to have to get wins and get points.”
“Hats off to the guys. They came back ready to go mentally and physically, and we worked on some areas we wanted to address to take us into this … part of the season,” Muller said. “A couple tweaks here and there, but all in all, it’s going to be a real commitment from everybody to take part.”
“Ft. Bragg was a special event. We were away for a couple of weeks doing our own thing, catching up with our families and resting the body, but to be able to come back and do a team event like that at Ft. Bragg really brought the guys back together,” Ward said. “We learned so much about team and effort, and there are lessons there we can use as a team going down the stretch run.”
Considering the team element, Muller said the Hurricanes will need contributions from everyone down the stretch in order to be successful: they can’t rely on one line to score goals or one line to play defense or one goaltender to win games.
“The big key is everyone is going to have to have a contribution to the team and a purpose. When you have that many games in March, your big boys are going to have to be your best players, but your other guys – (Riley) Nash, (Drayson) Bowman, (Elias) Lindy (Lindholm), Radek (Dvorak) and these guys – are all going to have to have a good role,” Muller said. “We need two goalies. Our schedule gave us a chance to do it before. [Khudobin] was hot, player of the month. It’s different now. We’ve just got too many games, and every game is going to be big. We’re going to need more than six D, more than 12 forwards and more than one goalie if we’re going to make a run at it, especially through March.”
The stage is set: five games, five cities, three states and eight days with the trade deadline (March 5 at 3 p.m.) looming large at the finish line of the road trip. It’s only five games, a small segment of a much larger marathon, but it could be significant in how the remainder of the season plays out.
“We know what’s ahead, and we’re excited about that challenge and opportunity,” Staal said. “We’ve put ourselves in a position to be in the mix with a lot of teams to get to the playoffs, and now it’s about executing here down the stretch.”
“We’re on the cusp on something,” Harrison said. “It’s attainable, and it’s within our grasps. But it requires the confidence to go out and actually reach it, grasp it and take it. It won’t be handed to us, and it won’t fall into our laps. Assertiveness and confidence is going to be paramount throughout the whole drive and not letting that wane in any way possible, regardless of the circumstances.”