Mathematics dictates that the Carolina Hurricanes could be officially eliminated from the playoff race tonight.
But don’t tell the team that.
The Canes know the cards are stacked against them, and with five games remaining, they could just as easily sleepwalk their way into a better draft position. Judging by the tempo of the morning skate and the mood of the locker room, however, that isn’t going to happen.
“We’re a team right now that’s confident. We’re having fun,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “It’s a good energy around here. The best thing is that there has been a lot of fight with our group for the last few months. They believe that they could stay in the race, and they’ve been battling every night.”
So much so that a win tonight over the Winnipeg Jets would vault the Hurricanes into 10th place in the Eastern Conference, a position the team hasn’t seen since the start of the season.
But even if that happens, if the Buffalo Sabres defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight, the Canes’ surge to 8th place would be mathematically halted, sealing a fate that has been looming for weeks. But to the Hurricanes’ credit, they haven’t let that slow them down. In fact, they’ve used it as motivation.
“Until we’re mathematically out, we’ve just got to keep pushing and do what we have to do,” Muller said. “Our guys are still going, still pushing. We’ve just got to control what we can control.”
What the team can control is who takes home the two points up for grabs tonight in the sixth and final meeting between these two divisional rivals. After the Jets won the first three meetings of the season, the Canes have rattled off two straight victories, most recently a come-from-behind 4-3 win at MTS Centre on March 18.Eric Staal
was a key force in that game, as he scored two goals and had the assist and a beauty of a screen on Chad LaRose
’s game-winning goal with under two minutes left in regulation.
It’s no coincidence that the Hurricanes’ climb in the standings has been paired with Staal’s resurgence in offensive production. Since Jan. 1, Staal ranks tied for fifth in the League in scoring with 43 points (14g, 29a). He has 9 points (4g, 5a) in his last eight games, recording multiple points in three of those games, the Winnipeg game being one of them.
“From Christmas on, he’s been one of the top three forwards in the NHL,” Muller said.
Staal averages over 21 minutes of ice time per game, and that number has been enhanced by a minute or two of penalty kill time each game. In the last 10 games, the Canes’ penalty kill is 28-for-30 (93.3%).
“He’s made our power play better, he’s been one of our top penalty killers, he plays against all the best defenseman, five-on-five he’s a plus player and he takes key face-offs,” Muller said. “I don’t know what more you can ask from your top guy.”
Staal is one of just eight players in the League who has scored 25 goals in each season since the lockout; he currently has 23.Cam Ward
will get the nod in net tonight, his sixth straight start. Ward has recorded at least 30 wins in four of his six seasons with the team; during the other two, he was the back-up goaltender (2005-06) and suffered through a number of injuries (2009-10). Now in his seventh season, Ward is two wins shy of 30.
Muller said that Brian Boucher
will get a start either Saturday night against New Jersey or Tuesday in Ottawa, a decision that will be made following tonight’s game.
“We’re just focused on today. I’m not really worried about tomorrow,” Muller said. “Our focus is on winning tonight.”