All season long, it's seemed as if no one has wanted to stake a claim as the best team in the NHL's Southeast Division.
The Carolina Hurricanes look like they're finally ready to do just that.
The Hurricanes (26-24-4) try for their fifth win in six games when they open a five-game road trip on Friday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Carolina has had a slim lead atop the league's worst division for most of the season, but after losing a season-high four straight games Jan. 10-17, briefly ceded the top spot to Atlanta.
Since then, the Hurricanes have played their most consistent hockey since early November. Carolina routed Edmonton 7-2 on Jan. 18, and split a home-and-home series with the Islanders before the All-Star break.
The Hurricanes opened the season's second half with a 3-1 win against the New York Rangers on Tuesday and beat Toronto 3-2 in overtime on Thursday by taking advantage of a power-play opportunity in the extra period.
"We got a lucky break that we got a power play and their guy didn't clear the puck and it ends up in their net," said center Rod Brind'Amour, who scored the game-winner. "I don't care how we get our two points."
Brind'Amour has four goals and six assists in his past seven games, and is a key part of one of the league's most potent offenses. He has an impressive 19 goals, yet he's just the Hurricanes' fourth-leading scorer - Eric Staal has 27 while Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman have 21 each.
Staal has seven goals and nine assists in his career against Pittsburgh.
Carolina's 163 goals trail only the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings.
Carolina is 13-13-2 on the road, but should be thrilled to begin its trip in Pittsburgh. The Hurricanes are 10-3-2 with one tie there since 1999, though the Penguins did salvage a shootout win on Oct. 19.
|Ty Conklin is 11-3-1 in his last 15 starts, but has never faced the Hurricanes. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Pittsburgh (28-19-4) is 2-2-1 since it lost Sidney Crosby for six-to-eight weeks with a high ankle sprain on Jan. 18, and continues to be involved in a tight race in the Atlantic Division.
"It's not fun watching, you wish you were out there," said Crosby, who was tied for the NHL lead with 63 points at the time of his injury. "Especially with the adversity our team has. We have a lot of injuries right now, and guys are battling through it."
Aside from Crosby, forwards Colby Armstrong (flu), Tyler Kennedy (mononucleosis) and Adam Hall (groin) have missed time recently. Armstrong has sat out the past two games, while Kennedy has missed five and Hall four.
Armstrong is expected back to face Carolina, while Hall may also return.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has missed nearly two months with the same injury as Crosby, though he was to take part in practice for the first time on Friday.
Ty Conklin has more than made up for Fleury's absence, however. The career backup has made 15 starts since Dec. 20, going 11-3-1 with a 2.00 goals-against average. He's never faced the Hurricanes.
Evgeni Malkin was one of the best second options in the NHL when paired with Crosby, but he's done his best to pick up the slack with the reigning Hart Trophy winner sidelined. Malkin had four goals and two assists in the first four games Crosby missed, though he was held scoreless in the Penguins' 4-1 loss at Atlanta on Wednesday.
Malkin only has two assists in five career games against Carolina.