For several days, the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot has been there for the taking. So far, no one has been able to take advantage.
The Hurricanes and Atlanta Thrashers have been separated by just one point in the standings ever since the Hurricanes beat Toronto on Jan. 24, with the Thrashers in eighth and the Hurricanes in ninth. In the three games since, the teams have simultaneously shared the same fate, whether it’s winning (Jan. 26) or more recently, losing (Feb. 1 and 3).
From the local perspective, the Canes can either consider themselves lucky that they aren’t five points behind after losses to Boston and Toronto, or they can be disappointed that they aren’t three points clear of their division rivals, who have stumbled against the New York Islanders and Calgary since play resumed following the All-Star break.
In reality, it’s a little bit of both. However the viewpoint, the race is certain to change in one way or another as the teams’ collision course leads them to Raleigh on Saturday night.
“Both teams have been coming back to earth from their start,” said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. “I think we felt we were getting better and stronger and have stumbled here a little bit. It will be a very emotional game, it will be a very physical game, and I think it’s going to be a very fast game.”
That speed is something Maurice feels has been lacking in his team’s two games since the All-Star break. While infinitely happier with Tuesday’s performance against Boston than Thursday’s in Toronto, Maurice noted that his team has had a total of 51 shots blocked in that span. In certain cases, one has to tip the cap to efforts like that of Toronto’s Tim Brent during a failed Carolina five-on-three power play that ended up being the turning point of the game, but Maurice feels that most of it reflects on those doing the shooting.
“We’re just not getting those shots off quick enough and they’re making a real concerted effort to get in front of the puck,” he said. “We’ve got to be a little quicker in everything we do.”
Although practice was originally scheduled for noon on Friday, Maurice decided to cancel the on-ice session at the last minute, in part so that his team could have the required level of energy to face the Thrashers.
“We wanted to check with everyone who came in to see who was fighting things,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we’ve got lots of jump for tomorrow.”
Since their eight-game points streak that served to make up significant ground on Atlanta but ended on Jan. 13 in Buffalo, the Hurricanes have picked up just eight points out of a possible 20. In that same amount of time, the Thrashers have earned six of a possible 18.
The real winners over the last few weeks have been the Buffalo Sabres, who, beginning with their head-to-head win over Carolina, have taken 10 out of a possible 14 points to get back into the race. They currently sit five points behind Carolina with three games in hand.
In what may shape up to be a three-horse race for one spot, match-ups like Saturday’s will be critical. Including the upcoming game, the Canes will face Atlanta four more times and Buffalo three more times.
”We’re going to play a bunch of these down the stretch and you can use whatever words you want to describe it,” said Maurice. “Most importantly, that energy and excitement to playing those games is going to be an incredible piece. You can’t go into those games tight and hoping. You’ve got to go into those games excited that you have a chance.”