If the Carolina Hurricanes aren't playoff bound by the time they step out onto the ice at home Friday night, all they have to do to ensure postseason play is defeat the Florida Panthers - again.
| "One more game to win, and we look forward to the challenge against Florida," says Eric Staal. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
With the Southeast Division title at stake in its regular-season finale, Carolina seeks its 14th straight win over Florida at the RBC Center.
The Hurricanes (43-32-6) beat Tampa Bay 6-2 on Wednesday, and a win would clinch their fourth division crown since relocating from Hartford in 1997. Carolina can also enter the postseason as the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed if Washington loses its final game in regulation.
If the Hurricanes have to win to get in, recent history is on their side. Carolina has outscored Florida 49-28 in its 13 consecutive home victories in the series, a run that began Feb. 16, 2004. The Hurricanes haven't lost at home to the Panthers since a 2-0 loss Dec. 6, 2002, going 14-0-0 with a tie in that span.
"One more game to win, and we look forward to the challenge against Florida," said Eric Staal, who helped Carolina get off to a quick start against the Lightning. He scored 32 seconds into the game and Chad LaRose, who missed almost two months with a broken leg earlier this season, recorded his first NHL hat trick.
"Everybody knows there's a playoff spot on the line," said Carolina's Tuomo Ruutu, who also scored. "There isn't going to be any better inspiration than that."
The Hurricanes could still miss the playoffs with a regulation loss, the Capitals recording at least one point in their finale, and a win by the Philadelphia Flyers in either of their two games.
Staal, the Hurricanes' scoring leader with 37 goals and 44 assists, and goaltender Cam Ward could help fuel that inspiration. Staal has 12 assists and 15 points in his last seven home games, while Ward is 13-4-2 with a 2.27 goals-against average and one shutout during a career-high 19 straight starts.
Staal has five goals and eight assists in 14 home games against the Panthers, while Ward is 2-0-0 with a 2.79 GAA in four career starts.
After being limited to three goals during a three-game skid, Florida (37-34-9) scored twice early in the third period of a 3-2 win over Atlanta on Tuesday. Jay Bouwmeester scored 1:02 into the period to snap a 1-1 tie before David Booth extended the lead 17 seconds later.
"Right now we can spoil the other teams' party," Florida captain and leading scorer Olli Jokinen said. "We want to win, whether we're not in the playoffs or in the playoffs."
Jokinen has 34 goals and 37 assists, including two goals and seven assists in seven games this season against Carolina.
While Florida has a chance to finish with at least 85 points for the third consecutive season under coach Jacques Martin, the Panthers haven't been to the playoffs since 2000.
Florida closes out its season Saturday at Washington.