It’s come down to the final game of the season to determine their playoff fate, and for the Hurricanes, there’s no place they’d rather be.
At the RBC Center, that is. Since the All-Star break, the Hurricanes are 13-1-2 on home ice, their only regulation loss during that span coming all the way back on February 28th at the hands of the New York Rangers.
Given that they took 28 out of a possible 32 points in the standings during that stretch and won their last two home games by a combined score of 13-3, the Canes are glad they get to stay in town for Friday night’s big finale against the Florida Panthers.
”It’s a good relationship right now, the building and the team,” said coach Peter Laviolette. “It’s definitely a benefit to have the game at home here as opposed to having to go to somebody else’s building where the game means so much.”
“It’s hard to explain,” said center Matt Cullen, who returned to the lineup last game after missing six with a head injury. “It’s kind of an intangible thing, but you do feel really comfortable at home, and this group especially has felt really good playing at home.”
That comfort didn’t exist earlier in the season, as the Canes were only 11-11-2 in their own building prior to January 29th. Their run since then has given them the third-best overall home record in the Eastern Conference at 24-12-4.
“After the All-Star break we talked about where we were in the standings,” said Laviolette. “Although we sat in third place it was kind of deceiving because Washington was starting to win some games and .500 hockey wasn’t going to get you into the playoffs. We knew we had a lot of work to do.”
That work is almost finished, and in the process the Hurricanes have dominated at home at a level not seen since the championship season of 2005-06. That year, the Hurricanes posted a staggering 41-12-2 record in Raleigh, including 14 games in the playoffs.
“We’re very comfortable here,” said Cullen. “I think that was the case two years ago, and we’re going to need it. It’s nice to be at home for this last big game and we’re going to need a good effort again.”
Goals by Eric Staal in the first minute of each of the team’s last two at home were key to those victories, as they not only set the tone against teams without as much to play for but also got the home fans into the game right from the outset.
”There’s been an awful lot of energy in the building, and there was last night when Staaly got them going early on by coming down the wing and burying that one on his first shift,” said Laviolette. “From there the building really provided the spark and the players responded with their game.”
There’s still a chance the Hurricanes could clinch the division from their sofas tonight if Tampa Bay is able to beat Washington, although no one is making that assumption given how good the Capitals look and the fact that the Lightning will be playing the second game of a back-to-back.
There’s also a chance that the Hurricanes could make the playoffs without winning the division if Washington were to surge ahead and the Canes could stay ahead of teams like Boston and Philadelphia.
While they would still be glad to get in via the latter scenario, the home-ice advantage from locking up the Southeast could go a long way if the Canes keep up their winning ways at the RBC.
“That would be ideal, and we saw two years ago what a difference that could make having home ice,” said Cullen. “Certainly that’s something that we would enjoy, but for us right now the only focus is Friday.”
Injury Notes: There was again no mandatory on-ice practice on Thursday, but a few players still took the ice, including Cullen, who along with Ray Whitney was rested for most of the third period the night before.
Laviolette didn’t offer a timetable on Justin Williams’ return, but did say he was feeling a bit better.
”He’s moving around today, which is a good sign compared to where he was yesterday. He’s feeling better,”