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Southeast Tight Down the Stretch

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes

Throughout most of this season, the popular opinion was that the only way to qualify for the playoffs from the Southeast Division was to win it outright and earn the automatic berth guaranteed to the champion.

Heading down the stretch, however, three of the league’s hottest teams reside in the Southeast, making it entirely possible that the victors won’t be the only representative from the region after all.

Carolina (8-2-0 last 10), Washington (7-3-0) and Florida (7-2-1) are all staking their claim for a postseason berth at the most crucial time.  Carolina has a five-point lead over both teams, which are tied with 78 points, with Washington having played one fewer game.

While only one team can win the division, the other teams have a solid chance at earning one of the last available berths the old fashioned way.  As things stand now, Washington and Florida, who has won seven straight, are only two points behind eighth-placed Philadelphia – a seemingly more attainable goal than catching the Hurricanes for the time being.

“There’s a lot of strong teams in the league,” said Canes goaltender Cam Ward, who has won nine of his last 11 appearances.  “Every team has a legitimate chance to make the playoffs.  It doesn’t surprise me at all that it’s a tight race because there’s a lot of good teams in the league.”

Even though the Southeast trio’s strong play of late might mean that winning the division isn’t as do-or-die as it once seemed, the guaranteed top-three seeding and the home ice advantage in the first round that comes with it will still be the goal for each team moving forward.  Having to open the first round with two games on the road against the conference’s first-placed team is an entirely different animal than starting at home against the six seed.

As small as the Hurricanes’ five-point lead in the Southeast seems given how well they’ve played for the last month, it must seem huge to the Capitals and Panthers, who have done everything they can to close the gap to no avail.

Still, it leaves the Canes with little room for error.

”The cushion is not big,” said Tim Gleason of the Hurricanes’ divisional lead.  “You lose one game and you’re looking back at the team right behind you.  We’re only one or two games away from them moving up pretty far.”

The Canes’ rivals will have opportunities to do just that in the regular season’s final contests, as all eight of the Canes’ remaining games will be against the Southeast – including two each against Washington and Florida.

”We know what our division is looking like, we know every team and where they stand,” said Gleason.  “We’ll have an opportunity to get two points every single night here, and I’ve said it all along, consistency, if we stick with that we’re going to be OK.”

No matter how everything plays out, the stage is set for an interesting finish to the season.

“It will have a big impact on dictating whether you’re going to be in or out of the playoffs,” said Ward.  “It would be nice to have a little bit of a cushion going to the end of the season.”
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