After tonight, the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets will still each have 30 games left to play in the 2013-14 regular season.
But one look at the standings white board in the locker room tells the story, setting the table for one of the Canes’ biggest games of the season.
The Hurricanes are 23-19-9 with 55 points in 51 games played. Columbus is 26-21-4 with 56 points in 51 games played. Carolina is in 5th in the Metropolitan Division, and the Blue Jackets are in third, the final divisional playoff spot.
“For game 52, it’s a big one. You’ve got to for sure treat it that way. We know that. Everybody in this room wants to keep the good vibe going that we have,” forward Eric Staal said. “We’re in our building and we had a good rest day yesterday, so we’ve got to be energized and excited about the challenge tonight.”
Tonight will mark the third of five meetings between the two teams, now divisional rivals, this season, and the first two did not go in the Hurricanes’ favor.
The first game was one of the more stinging losses of the year for the Canes. Up 3-2 with less than five minutes to play in regulation, Carolina surrendered a pair of goals to fall 4-3. Most recently, on Jan. 10 in Columbus, the Canes couldn’t solve Sergei Bobrovsky, who made 36 saves in a shutout effort. That win was the Blue Jackets’ second in what would become a string of eight straight victories.
“They’ve won the games, but I think they’ve both been tight games,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “They caught us sleeping for a couple minutes late in the game here, and we walked into a back-to-back game there. It was tight, but we didn’t get results.”
“A good start goes a long way,” Staal said. “We had a good game until the last four minutes. We gave up two (goals) and ended up losing before the (Christmas) break. You have to play a full 60 minutes.”
A good start does indeed go a long way for both teams. 20 of the Blue Jackets’ 26 wins have come when they score first. The Hurricanes are 14-1-4 when scoring first.
“Scoring the first goal is big,” Staal said. “We’ll try to get off to a good start and get after that first one, but if we don’t, we still have to play the right way and a structured game, knowing that if we do that, we’re not going to give up a lot and we’re going to get some chances.”
Momentum has been a key for each team of late, as well. Aided by their eight-game winning streak, Columbus is 9-2-0 in January and 8-2-0 in their last 10 games. The Hurricanes, now riding a three-game winning streak of their own, are 8-3-0 in January and 7-3-0 in their last 10 games.
“When you have [momentum], you want to keep it as long as you can. For us right now, we feel like we have a good vibe and some good momentum going,” Staal said. “It’s about keeping that ball rolling. You have to find ways some nights to get a win or pick up points. That’s what good teams do.”
“Momentum is huge. Once you get it, you have to take advantage of it. You look at two teams tonight that are on a good little roll,” Muller said. “I think it’s also important that you look at a 10-game span. Somewhere along the line in the season, you have to have a pretty good 10 games in there where you try to separate yourself from opponents or get yourself in the race or gain points on other teams. Both teams are doing that right now.”
Anton Khudobin will make his fourth straight start in net. He is 10-3-0 on the season with a 2.20 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. The Canes are expected to dress the same lineup otherwise, with Patrick Dwyer missing his third game with an upper-body injury and Brett Bellemore being the healthy extra on defense.
As far as game No. 52s go, this one is pretty big.
“I expect tonight, under the circumstances of where both teams are, to be a good game,” Muller said.