Although the roles may have reversed, the stakes are as high as they’ve ever been.
Since the standings made them contenders for the same playoff spot in January, the Hurricanes and Thrashers have met three times. In those cases, Carolina was either looking to catch or create separation in a tight race between the two Southeast Division rivals.
For tonight’s game, it’s the Thrashers who are the clear chasers as the Canes have built a six-point lead. However, the match-up will still be vital as the Canes look to leapfrog the idle Buffalo Sabres to get back above the cutoff line into eighth place and the Thrashers look to climb back into the picture by beating the teams ahead of them.
“Atlanta was the team on the calendar for an awfully long time, and then it changes pretty quickly,” said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. “They had a real difficult December schedule that I think hurt them with the number of games they had to play, but there’s still an awful lot of hockey. We’re certainly not looking at these guys as if they’re not in the mix. They’re right there.”
“Both teams are still out of playoff position, so we’re kind of in the same boat right now,” said Erik Cole.
Dating back to the beginning of December, the Thrashers are 14-19-8, including a stretch featuring just five wins in their last 23 games. That’s allowed the Canes to surge ahead, but Maurice isn’t taking them lightly based on their recent games.
“Their record hasn’t been great, but their chances for and chances against have been very high,” he said. “They’ve really put up a lot of offense in their games and played pretty darn well, so we’re expecting their best and they should expect ours.”
The Hurricanes have won all four meetings between the teams this year. However, the series has not been as dominant as the record might suggest, with the Canes needing overtime or a shootout to win three of those. The Canes’ lone regulation win on Feb. 13 in Atlanta also came by one goal – a late strike by Cole with 1:19 left on the clock.
That goal was one of three game-winners for Cole in the season series, with the other two coming in overtime at the RBC Center.
“Just dumb luck,” said Cole, who has 7 game-winning goals on the season/
Tonight’s visitors will be without a key piece in defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who suffered a lower-body injury earlier in the week. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound All-Star is Atlanta’s second highest-scorer with 49 points, trailing captain and former Hurricane Andrew Ladd by one.
Maurice said Byfuglien’s absence could have a big impact on the way the Thrashers play tonight.
“He’s up in the play so much that he’s a challenge to handle and he’s got that bomb at the point, but at the same time they may play a little more sorted game, a little more defensive-minded game and be in some ways tougher to play against,” said Maurice.
Cole agreed that Byfuglien being out of the lineup would affect Atlanta more on the offensive side of the ice, but also noted that Atlanta was able to erase a one-goal deficit and earn a point the last time they were in Raleigh on Feb. 5 despite Byfuglien sitting on the bench for the final 10 minutes.
“They’ve got plenty of capable guys out there,” he said.
Thrashers defenseman Paul Postma, a 22-year-old who has spent the season with Chicago of the American Hockey League, will make his NHL debut in Byfuglien’s place.
It appears as though the Hurricanes will keep their altered defensive pairings from Tuesday’s practice, with Bryan Allen alongside Joe Corvo and Tim Gleason skating with Jay Harrison. The pairing of Joni Pitkanen and Jamie McBain remains intact, with Derek Joslin serving as the healthy scratch.