Two games separate the Carolina Hurricanes from the Olympic break, and it’s a set of two very important games as it relates to the standings and playoff positioning.
The Hurricanes come into Friday’s contest versus the Florida Panthers sitting in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division with 59 points (25-21-9). But that’s a bit deceiving, as the Canes are a victim of games played; they currently hold at least two and as many as four games in hand on all teams in their division.
But games in hand are only meaningful if they’re taken advantage of.
“No sugar coating it. These are two big games,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “We’re at home, and they’re games-in-hand that we’ve got to take advantage of. They’re not going to be easy.”
Just to illustrate what winning games in hand could mean for the Canes: should they collect four out of a possible four points in this back-to-back set, they would jump to 63 points (27-21-9), which presently would leave them a point out of a divisional playoff spot, still with a game in hand.
“It’s an important game for us,” Muller said. “We’re fresh and at home, and we should take advantage of jumping out on an opponent when they’ve played the night before.”
The Canes will open this back-to-back set against Florida, who suffered a 3-1 loss to Detroit in South Florida last night, as they catch the Cats on the tail end of a back-to-back. Tonight will mark the beginning of the 14th of 20 back-to-backs for the Canes this season; thus far, the Canes are 8-4-1 in the front half, including a perfect 5-0-0 in January, and 4-6-3 in the back half.
“They played last night, so you want to catch a team when they come in on a back-to-back,” Muller said. “As we know, we’ve had our fair share of them so far.”
The Canes saw their three-game home winning streak snapped on Tuesday in a stinging 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. But two days of practice in between then and now have the team feeling confident and focused in their game plan.
“We’re having success when we really take advantage of the 60 minutes. We’re not a big, physical team, but we’re a good puck-moving, skating team. For us to wear teams down, we’ve got to put pucks in the right areas,” Muller said. “We take the hesitation out of our game, skate and get to pucks first. When we do that … we have more puck possession and we spend more time in the offensive zone.”
Since moving to Raleigh at the outset of the 1999-2000 season, the Canes own a 29-7-4 home record against the Panthers. The Canes claimed victory in the first meeting between these two teams this season, a 3-2 win on Jan. 18 in which Alexander Semin scored twice in the third period.
In a couple of roster notes, the Canes are not expected to make any lineup changes, meaning Radek Dvorak and Mike Komisarek will be the healthy extras.
Tuomo Ruutu will skate in his 600th career NHL game, 372 of which will have been played with Carolina. Now in his 10th season, he’s posted 138 goals and 185 assists (323 points) in his career.
Anton Khudobin will make his eighth straight start in net, also marking his 16th consecutive appearance. He was named the NHL’s first star in the month of January, as he compiled a 10-4-0 record, a 2.19 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. In that stretch, he allowed two goals or fewer in nine appearances, and he has yet to surrender more than three goals in a game all season. In total, Khudobin owns a 12-5-0 record on the season with a 2.15 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage.
The Canes will don their black alternate uniforms for the ninth time this season tonight. They are 40-26-6 all-time in their third sweaters, including a 4-4-0 mark this season and a 3-1-0 record in their last four games. Two of those wins marked two of the most exhilarating games of the season, as the Canes defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-4 in overtime on New Year’s Eve and the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2 on Jan. 27, both in dramatic comeback fashion.
An outcome similar to those would certainly send the team and fans home happy heading into the Olympic break.
“The guys have to push hard and give it all for the next two days,” Muller said. “You want to finish on a good note so that everyone is excited for when the time comes that we’re back practicing.”