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High stakes in battle for eighth-place in East

by David Kalan
When the schedule is released in the NHL offseason, a number of games are scheduled at certain points for obvious reasons. Division rivals or teams expected to compete for championships will be given deference for the sake of a national TV audience or because late in the season those teams are expected to be competing for a division title.

What will happen tonight in Raleigh, however, is something of a different sort. Rare is the case when two teams with no divisional ties play a late-season game that is so crucial to the hopes of their seasons, but when the puck drops between the Hurricanes and Sabres on Thursday night that will be the case.

Carolina and Buffalo will be engaging in a veritable "four-pointer" as they jockey for the final playoff spot in the East.

"Both teams are looking at this as an opportunity to move ahead," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said after the morning skate Thursday.

"Nothing needs to be said. The energy is going to be here. This is a team behind us that we've got to beat." -- Eric Staal

As the situation currently sits, Carolina holds a two-point edge over Buffalo for the eighth seed, but the advantage is muted considering the Sabres have two games in hand and have been among the best teams in the League since the calendar turned. The Sabres have gone 15-7-3 since Jan. 1, which has moved them from 11th to the cusp of the top eight while leading general manager Darcy Regier to boost the Sabres' offense by acquiring Brad Boyes from St. Louis this past weekend.

Add in the recent sale of the team to Terry Pegula, which has reinvigorated the franchise and its fan base, and Carolina would seem to have good reason for concern.

What makes matters worse for the Hurricanes is they have been slumping of late, losing nine of their last 14 games. The components indicate Maurice's team, which attempted to bolster itself for a postseason run by acquiring Cory Stillman and Bryan Allen ahead of the trade deadline, is in for the metaphorical "gut check" game.

While a victory would give the Hurricanes some much-needed breathing room -- they could actually leapfrog the Rangers into the seventh spot with a win -- a loss, particularly in regulation, could leave them in trouble given the four potential points the Sabres could pad their total with when they make up those extra games.

"Nothing needs to be said," Carolina captain Eric Staal said Thursday morning. "The energy is going to be here.

"This is a team behind us that we've got to beat."

Thursday night's game is even more important considering that both teams will face tough schedules in the coming week. Just 24 hours after hosting Buffalo, the Hurricanes will be in Chicago to face off with the defending-champion Blackhawks, who are currently riding a six-game winning streak. After a brief trip home against the Thrashers, Carolina will have another back-to-back next weekend against Washington and Columbus, two more teams playing well of late.

At the same time, Buffalo is currently in the midst of a season-long seven-game road trip that includes tough matchups with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston and a surging Toronto team.

All of this makes any opportunity to engineer a four-point swing that much more important. Whichever team takes two points tonight will have stuck a significant blow to its direct competitor, but there is a silver lining for whoever loses tonight -- the Sabres and Hurricanes will face off in another crucial battle in just 12 days in Buffalo.
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