With their captain nursing a season-ending injury, the Carolina Hurricanes have started to pull away from the rest of the Southeast Division.
The Hurricanes try to pad their division lead on Saturday when they host the second-place Washington Capitals.
Rod Brind'Amour tore his ACL on Feb. 14, ending his season - and according to some at the time, the Hurricanes' playoff chances. However, Carolina (31-28-5) has gone 2-1-1 without him and 4-1-1 over its last six games to move four points ahead of Washington in the division standings.
"That's five out of six games where I've really liked the way we've played," Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said after Thursday's 5-3 win over third-place Atlanta.
|The Hurricanes hope to keep the Capitals at their knees and pad their Southeast Division lead over their second-place rival this evening in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The Thrashers are five points back in the congested Southeast, while Florida is six points behind. Last-place Tampa Bay is only 10 points behind the Hurricanes.
Washington (28-26-7), meanwhile, has done its best to keep pace by earning points in four of its last six (2-1-2) games. However, the Capitals could have a hard time in Raleigh, where they have lost their last four games, including two this season.
The Hurricanes are 5-0-1 in their last six overall at home.
"They could put six points between us and them, and they could solidify a top-eight spot if they win," coach Bruce Boudreau told the Capitals' official Web site of Saturday's matchup. "With us, we can get within two with three games in hand. There is a huge difference there."
The Hurricanes have put 93 shots on net in their last two games, including 46 in Thursday's victory. Scott Walker had a goal and two assists and Ray Whitney scored for the fourth straight game.
"We knew the importance of it, obviously," Whitney said. "We came out and we had a little energy to us. We had a little spark to us. We decided we had to get pucks to the net and get them any way we can. We were certainly ready for tonight's game."
The Capitals are coming off Wednesday's 3-2 shootout loss to the New York Islanders. Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich scored for Washington, which blew a two-goal lead for the second straight game.
The Capitals won 3-2 on a late goal after letting a 2-0 lead evaporate Saturday against Tampa Bay
"I think it's lack of a killer instinct," Laich said. "I don't think we really button down when we do have a lead. The old cliche is step on the throat. We sit back a little bit more. Sometimes we're trying to make too-fancy plays, too, which can result in turnovers. We just have to keep playing our same game, stay aggressive."
Alexander Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 48 goals, failed to score for the third straight game - his longest scoreless stretch of the season. However, Ovechkin has 15 goals and nine assists in 21 career games against Carolina, including five goals and an assist in five games this season.
"It's a big game for us," Boudreau said. "We have to understand it's a big game, and I think we do."