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Defending Stanley Cup champs begin final week outside playoff picture @NHLdotcom

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -The Carolina Hurricanes spent the entire season waiting for the burst that would carry them back into the playoffs and maybe even to their second straight Stanley Cup.

It hasn't come yet, and time is running out on the reigning champs.

The Hurricanes enter the season's final week on the outside of the playoff picture and needing their strongest surge yet to avoid becoming the first defending Stanley Cup champion to miss the postseason since New Jersey in 1996.

"We're not out of it yet, I don't think," defenseman Mike Commodore said. "We've got four games left. We need to win them. I know we're not out of it until the mathematicians say we're out of it."

Carolina (38-32-8) has slipped to the back of the pack of six teams vying for the final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes entered Saturday tied for 10th, two points behind eighth-place Montreal and three behind the New York Rangers.

Their preseason goal of becoming the first team to repeat since Detroit in 1997 and '98 has been essentially dashed. Now, Carolina probably needs to at least match its longest winning streak of the year just to sneak into the postseason.

The Hurricanes haven't won more than three straight all season, and their current three-game losing streak couldn't have come at a more inopportune time.

They've been outscored 15-4 in losses to Toronto, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, and the 4-2 loss to the Lightning on Friday night might have been toughest to take.

"We're just not capitalizing on our opportunities," Commodore said. "It wasn't like the last two games where we just got pounded and didn't play well. It was just a couple little lapses, and that's the game."

Added left winger Erik Cole: "You've kind of got to let this one eat at you a little bit."

Playing before a sold-out crowd buzzing with playoff intensity, Carolina twice allowed the Lightning to rally from one-goal deficits. Tampa Bay scored the final three goals of the game and escaped with two critical points.

That loss "was big. Philadelphia was big. Every game from here on out ... Does it get more bigger? I guess so. They're all big," coach Peter Laviolette said.

One major reason for the Hurricanes' late-season slide has been a faulty power-play unit that has been largely unproductive for much of the season - and even worse down the stretch.

The league's fifth-worst team with the man advantage is 0-for-12 in those situations during its current slide. Against Tampa Bay, Carolina failed to register a shot on goal during three of its four power plays.

"It's costing us games, obviously, and it has been for a while," Cole said. "At times it's execution, and at times it's work ethic. It's a variety of things, and it hasn't been working for us."

One thing's for certain - the Hurricanes must turn things around during their crucial swing through the Sunshine State that includes games at Florida on Sunday and Tampa Bay on Tuesday. If they continue losing, their final two home games likely will be meaningless.

"We've got to be" optimistic, Laviolette said. "We've got to win a hockey game. We've got to go to Florida, got to win two. That's the bottom line. Start with one, got to move on."

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