For all the scenarios and things that had to happen over the last month regarding the Hurricanes’ playoff chances, it’s fitting that things couldn’t get any more simple heading into the last game of the regular season.
Win, and they’re in.
The Canes’ regulation victory in Atlanta on Friday pulled them into an eighth-place tie with the New York Rangers. Since Carolina holds the tiebreaker regardless of what happens in the Rangers’ matinee against New Jersey and the Canes’ game against Tampa Bay, all the Hurricanes need to do is earn at least as many points as their competition.
That being said, should the Rangers lose in regulation this afternoon, the Canes could be qualified for the playoffs before they even take the ice, with a first-round date against the Southeast Division rival Washington Capitals already secured. That could make for some interesting afternoon TV, though the Canes may not be watching.
“I’m not watching the game, and I’ve instructed the players to do absolutely their normal pregame routine, so I don’t imagine anyone is going to be foregoing a nap to watch it,” said coach Paul Maurice. “I’m sure there will be people around me watching the game, and I’ll probably have a pretty good idea what the score is.
“I’m more comfortable that we’ll have a clear mind going into the game and there won’t be any scoreboard watching in the building to see what’s happening. We can be 100 percent focused on what we need to do.”
While the concept of playing a do-or-die game is certainly more stressful than the concept of playing what could essentially be an exhibition game at the RBC Center tonight, Maurice said his team would prepare for the former and expect a tough game even though the Lightning are assured of the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and will have nothing on the line.
“You can’t play fight in the game of hockey,” said Maurice. “You’re either going or you’re not. We’re not going to expect much out of them, and what I mean by that is we’re going to focus solely on our game. We won’t spend an awful lot of time wondering or worrying about Tampa. We’ll expect their best and prepare our players.”
Maurice said that there would be no lineup changes from Friday night’s 6-1 decision over the Thrashers, although that could potentially change if the Rangers lose. Jay Harrison (upper body) will likely sit out either way, but there could be a window for Troy Bodie or Justin Peters to enter the lineup should the coaches decide to rest the likes of Eric Staal or Cam Ward.
The fact that the Canes controlled the game in Atlanta more or less from the outset – they led 2-0 in the first 6:15 and never looked back – has already allowed a few key players some extra rest. In particular, both Eric Staal (15:36) and Tim Gleason (15:39) played their fewest minutes of the season, excluding games in which their nights were cut short by injury or ejection. On the flip side, fourth-line players Patrick Dwyer, Jerome Samson and Jiri Tlusty each topped the 10-minute mark, with Samson hitting double digits for just the second time in 22 games this season.
“(We gave) some minutes to players who have played important (roles),” said Maurice. “Now they can feel like they’ve been in the game and they’re ready to go.”
That feeling should be shared by the rest of the team, which has shown some confidence in winning nine of its last 12 games, including five straight on the road. Each loss looked as though it might spell doom for a group that had so little margin for error heading down the stretch, making the fact that they’re now in a position to make the playoffs just by taking care of their own business tonight remarkable enough in itself.
“There was always that sliver that we were playing well and that positive idea that our game was good,” said Maurice. “We’ve been talking about this for a couple of months, so they’re battle tested and ready.”