RALEIGH, N.C. – Posted on the wall in the Carolina Hurricanes’ dressing room is a rundown of the teams that remain in the East’s playoff field. By Saturday’s skate that group had dwindled to seven.
One more loss, and Carolina can cross itself off the list, too.
These are desperate times for the Hurricanes. They enter Game 6 of their back-and-forth, best-of-seven series with New Jersey on Sunday night trailing the Devils 3-2 and needing to accomplish something that neither team has yet to do – win two straight – to keep its post-season alive.
“After a loss, we come out with more conviction than we have after a win,” forward Erik Cole said Saturday. “It’s at that point now where our backs are against the wall, and we’re going to need great efforts from everybody to overcome this.”
The Devils might be one victory away from advancing for the first time since reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2007, but they’re well aware that neither team has been able to maintain control of the NHL’s tightest opening-round series.
The last four games have been decided by one goal, two have gone to overtime and Game 4 was 0.2 of a second away from making it three straight, before Jussi Jokinen beat the buzzer by deflecting in the winning goal with his skate.
Through Friday, no other series has had more than three one-goal games or had multiple contests go to OT.
“I think there’s always a benefit in ending a series early. But especially with this series, considering how close it has been, it’s far from over,” said New Jersey captain Jamie Langenbrunner, who has missed the past three games with a lower body injury.
“Getting it done shouldn’t be the mind-set to have,” he added. “We just have to be ready to play and come out with our best lineup. It’s been a tight series and a tough series. I just want to be a part of it.”
Coach Brent Sutter said Langenbrunner would be a game-time decision while defenceman Bryce Salvador was expected to miss a second straight game with a lower body injury.
The Hurricanes also have injury concerns with forwards Sergei Samsonov and Matt Cullen being held out of practice. Coach Paul Maurice said the availability of Samsonov, who missed Game 5 with a lower body injury, would be determined on game day, but that Cullen was expected to play and that both players were taking advantage of the extra day off between games.
Carolina certainly could use contributions from both players – and everyone else wearing red – if they’re going to foil Martin Brodeur and avoid losing a series for the first time since the 2002 Stanley Cup final. Their only post-season appearance between now and then came in 2006, when they won the Cup.
The winningest goaltender in NHL history is coming off his record-tying 23rd career playoff shutout, a 1-0 victory that was dominated by offence – or, more accurately, the offensive chances both teams missed.
The Hurricanes peppered Brodeur with 44 shots while New Jersey put 42 shots on equally sharp Carolina goalie Cam Ward, but the only puck to get past either one of them came on David Clarkson’s second-period deflection.
“If (Brodeur) is going to see it, he’s going to stop it,” Carolina forward Ray Whitney said. “There’s a reason he’s got 550 wins or whatever the hell he’s got (actually 557). There’s a reason he’s the all-time best. So, getting in front of him, obviously, without bumping him, and trying to take a little bit of his line of sight away is important.”
Brodeur’s brilliance has put the Devils in some welcome, familiar territory.
When New Jersey wins three games in a series, the fourth usually is little more than a formality: They haven’t been eliminated after three victories since the 2001 Cup final against Colorado, when they lost Game 7 after leading 3-2 through four games.
Obviously, the Devils don’t want things to get to that point this time.
“We’re at the point in the series where one team is desperate to keep it going and the other has a chance to close it out,” Sutter said. “It’s a different mind-set. If you have a chance to close it out, you want to do it.
“It’s been a close series and a great series,” he added. “Both teams have played extremely hard. The goaltending has been great. It turned out exactly like the way everyone had it matched up. We knew it was going to be a good series and it hasn’t disappointed anyone. It’s as good as there has been.”