There are regular season games that have that “playoff atmosphere,” but tonight’s contest at the RBC Center figures to be as close to the real thing as one can get.
The Hurricanes’ remaining three-game series against the Buffalo Sabres could very well determine which team makes the postseason and which team does not. Carolina currently holds a two-point lead over Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It could either extend that lead or give it up to the Sabres, who hold the tiebreaker in terms of having played two fewer games, depending on the outcome of tonight’s game at the RBC Center.
“Both teams are looking at this as an opportunity to move ahead,” said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice.
“Nothing needs to be said,” said Staal in terms of providing any extra motivation as the team’s captain. “The energy is going to be here.”
With the Sabres holding games in hand over the Hurricanes, the surest way for the home team to stay ahead of them is winning these head-to-head match-ups and remaining in control of their own destiny. After tonight’s game, the squads will meet again on March 15 in Buffalo and April 3 at the RBC Center.
“This is a team behind us that we’ve got to beat,” said Staal.
There is still a chance that both the Hurricanes and Sabres could end up in the playoffs. Most notably, the New York Rangers sit just one point ahead of the Hurricanes, meaning that Carolina could finish the night in seventh with the right outcomes in their own game and the Rangers’ simultaneous match-up with the Minnesota Wild. That two-seed swing is the biggest they’ve faced since the season’s opening months.
“Obviously there are a lot of games left, but it’s an opportunity to get some space and climb the ladder,” said Staal.
Though he’s approaching his personal record of 28 consecutive starts set last season, Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward, who will make his 24th in a row tonight, doesn’t figure to get too many nights off at this point in the season. Instead, the team has been giving him a break from practices, as they did on Wednesday when Ward was allowed to skip the team’s on-ice session on the heels of his 41-save performance against Florida the night before.
“He sees a lot of shots in games,” said Maurice. “He just doesn’t need to see them in the 35-minute shootarounds.”
If he feels up to it, which he should, Ward will also start the second half of the Hurricanes’ back-to-back set, which continues in Chicago on Friday. That game will be a challenge in itself, with the Blackhawks, winners of a season-high six straight, in a postseason dogfight of their own in an extremely tight Western Conference.
“We’ve had the opportunity to play back-to-backs against a rested team on a number of occasions this year, and we’re going to have to be very good,” said Maurice, noting that Chicago is off Thursday night.
Maurice said that he may have considered starting Justin Peters in one of the upcoming games, but a four-day break between the Chicago match-up and Wednesday’s game with Atlanta helped ease concerns about Ward’s workload.
“If we were playing Tuesday we may have to re-look at that, but we’re not, so we don’t,” he said.
With the Hurricanes boasting a healthy lineup, defenseman Derek Joslin will be a healthy scratch for the second straight game since Monday’s acquisition of Bryan Allen from Florida.
According to the Buffalo News, leading scorer Thomas Vanek, who has 21 points in 19 career games against Carolina and 27 points in his last 27 games this season, is expected to play through an ankle injury suffered in Tuesday’s win over the Rangers. He missed Wednesday’s practice.
Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold, one of two Buffalo blue liners with 10 or more goals along with Tyler Myers, is doubtful with an upper-body injury.