With 10 games left, the Eastern Conference's playoff race is starting to take shape.
It's starting to look more and more like the Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres will be main rivals for the final spot, although nothing is set in stone. The seventh-place New York Rangers aren’t yet safe, although they’ve done themselves a huge favor by winning four straight. A small group of teams behind the Canes, namely the New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs and Atlanta Thrashers, also have some hope.
“I don’t know what the other teams’ records are going to look like down the stretch, but there have been a lot of strange things happening in this league, and I wouldn’t count anything out yet,” said coach Paul Maurice.
As of Monday morning, it’s Buffalo and Carolina that are staring directly at each other on either side of the cutoff line, with the Sabres holding a three-point edge in an equal amount of games played. The two teams entered the weekend tied in points thanks to the Canes’ overtime win on Friday, with Buffalo then taking three out of a possible four against Atlanta and Nashville to pull ahead once again.
Mathematically, Carolina has a slightly more difficult schedule than Buffalo in terms of points earned by remaining opponents. However, the Sabres have more games against teams that would be considered “on the bubble” as of now - contests that are likely to be among the most intense - with match-ups against New Jersey, Toronto and the Rangers still on the schedule. With the lone exception of Atlanta, the Canes will face teams that either know that they’re in or know that they’re out.
If that ends up being a wash, the timing of the schedule offers no further advantages. With the exception of the final week of the season when Buffalo plays Tampa Bay on a Tuesday and Carolina hosts Detroit the following day, the two teams play their other nine games simultaneously.
That means both teams will have to deal with the fact that eight of their remaining 10 contests are part of back-to-back situations, which for Carolina begins with a home-and-home set with Tampa Bay starting Friday.
“Those back-to-backs, clearly Tampa is fine, and I think with the rest of them the other team is playing the night before too, so that’s a little bit of a treat for us,” said Maurice. “We’ve got an even playing field.”
If things stay roughly the way they are now, the final head-to-head match-up between Carolina and Buffalo at the RBC Center on April 3 should be significant, not that the other games aren’t. Trying to keep that focus without creating the tension that has showed signs of creeping into their game will be a challenge for the Canes the rest of the way.
“With every one of these games, we’ll be talking about it being a must-win game, but with 10 left, you’d take 9-1,” said Maurice. “You want to be careful how you bring that into your room.”
If nothing else, the Canes will enter the final push relatively rested. Tuesday’s game with Ottawa is their only game in a six-day stretch from last Friday’s Islanders game to this Friday’s opener with Tampa Bay.
“I think getting a little recovery time is important,” said Maurice. “We can have lots of energy for the game tomorrow night and then recover again.”