Whether you believe the Hurricanes are still in the fight or not, there’s no question that their next two games against Atlanta will have a big impact in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Thrashers are just two points behind Boston for the eighth and final playoff spot, with the New York Rangers barely in the rearview mirror. Carolina currently sits in 13th place, seven points behind the Bruins.
While Carolina will have to win every game regardless of who they play in the season’s last eight games, Atlanta presents a stiff test because the games are no less important to them.
”They should be the most intense games (left on the schedule), I think we’ll see that,” said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. “There should be some banging and a lot of fighting for pucks, and the team that gets up to pace as quick as it can is going to win the game.”
The Hurricanes will be looking to carry over the momentum of their recent shootout win over Washington, which marked the second time they had beaten the league-leading Capitals in one week. They’ve also bested the fourth-place Pittsburgh Penguins twice in March, although Maurice said he’s been more concerned about how his team plays against more workmanlike, gritty teams.
”Scratch and claw,” he said. “That is the National Hockey League in a nutshell, because beating Washington gives you no rights over the next game, especially when you get to teams that are just going to fight you right until the end. That’s a real important mental part of this game. It’s going to be a grind.”Cam Ward
will make his return to the lineup tonight, although he will start the game backing up Manny Legace. Ward is expected to start in the second half of the home-and-home series in Atlanta on Monday.
The Thrashers have had an interesting go of it since the Olympic Break. A relatively easy 4-0 Carolina win in Atlanta on March 7 was the second of a five-game losing streak for the Thrashers, who then seemingly fell out of playoff contention. However, they followed that up by earning points in six of their next seven games, including a four-game winning streak.
Still, they’ve been disappointed by flat performances at home in their last two games, a critical loss to the Bruins on Tuesday and an overtime defeat to Toronto on Thursday, which led coach John Anderson to call a closed-door meeting about the team’s intensity level.
That’s usually a recipe for a fiery performance in the following game. With so much on the line anyway, tonight’s match-up should live up to Maurice’s expectations.