No team has been hotter over the past two weeks than the Carolina Hurricanes. But will it be enough to get them all the way into the final Eastern wild-card spot?
With the consistent back-and-forth between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins for the last playoff spot in the Atlantic Division and the wild race for the final post-season berth in the Eastern Conference, all eyes have been on the teams within a few wins of clinching the playoffs. Much has been said over the past month about the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning and, until recently, the Florida Panthers, each of whom continued to battle for the final wild-card spot.
Over the past two weeks, though, a new contender has emerged, an unlikely one and a competitor for a playoff berth that few would have seen coming as the final few weeks of the season approached: the Carolina Hurricanes.
The recent run up the standings from the Hurricanes started rather inauspiciously. At the beginning of March, Carolina was faced with a set of three winnable games — a home-and-home set with the Coyotes, followed by a road game against the Avalanche. Six points were there for the Hurricanes’ taking, and those six points could have been incredibly helpful for their playoff hopes. Instead, Carolina watched the first two points slip away, were able to eke out a win in the second outing against the Coyotes and then dropped a 3-1 tilt against the league-worst Avalanche.
Writing off the Hurricanes after dropping two of three against the league’s two worst clubs wouldn’t have been all that bold. We can see now, though, that it would have been misguided. Since those losses against the Coyotes and Avalanche, the Hurricanes have been the hottest team in the league. That’s no exaggeration or hyperbole, either. From March 9 onward, Carolina has picked up 15 of a possible 18 points, and they’ve been landing crucial points against foes few would have expected the Hurricanes to be beating at this point in the campaign.
The current run of play started with a 4-3 victory over the New York Rangers, and the Hurricanes have managed to take three of four points from the New York Islanders, down the Western Conference giant Minnesota Wild, Atlantic Division-leading Montreal Canadiens and haven’t lost a single one of their past nine games outright. Carolina’s three defeats have all come in overtime. The result has been a Hurricanes team that has rocketed up the standings. Entering play on March 9, Carolina was one point clear of the Eastern Conference basement. Two weeks later, there has to be real, honest-to-goodness consideration given to whether or not the Hurricanes can pull off the unthinkable and get themselves into the playoffs.
If we’re looking at it by underlying numbers alone, maybe it isn’t so surprising that Carolina has managed to fight their way into this position. After all, under coach Bill Peters’ guidance, the team has consistently been able to post positive possession numbers. The issue for far too long, however, has been that goaltending has ultimately sunk the Hurricanes’ chances. That has been the case for much of this season, too, but it might also be what makes Carolina’s current situation all the more unbelievable. If they manage to actually inch into the post-season, one of the heroes will almost assuredly be Eddie Lack. That’s mind-boggling considering it was earlier this month that Peters called out the Swedish netminder, publicly pleading with him to just make a save.
However, since that moment, Lack has been better than ever in the Carolina goal. It’s a small five-game sample, but since March 4, Lack hasn’t allowed more than two goals against in a single start. In all, he’s stopped 125 of the 132 shots that have come his way, good for a .947 save percentage and 1.41 goals-against average. Not only that, but Lack’s numbers are leaps and bounds better than the .904 SP and 3.30 GAA marks Cam Ward has posted over the same 20-day span.
Is goaltending still a long-term issue in Carolina? Absolutely, and one stretch of hot play from Lack doesn’t absolve him of past woeful performances. But there’s no time to worry about that now for the Hurricanes, and Lack is turning in solid games every time he has taken the crease since Peters’ slight blow up about the goaltender’s play. No one in Carolina is going to be asking for much more right now. No matter how well Lack plays, though, it’s evident when looking at the standings that Carolina is going to have a tough road.
As it stands, the Hurricanes sit five points back of the Bruins for the final wild-card spot, but Carolina does have two games in hand. However, the Hurricanes also sit two points back of the Lightning with a single game in hand and are three points behind the Islanders with the same number of games remaining. So, with only 10 games left on the schedule, Carolina is going to need some help to squeak into the post-season.
Benefitting the Hurricanes is the road ahead. Of the 10 games left on their schedule, there’s a meeting with the Eastern Conference-worst New Jersey Devils, a two-game set against the struggling Detroit Red Wings and two other meetings with teams who boast fewer points in the standings. There’s also an incredibly important meeting with the Islanders set for April 6 and some serious tests with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins on the docket. Luckily, all but one of the Hurricanes’ wild-card opponents are facing more difficult schedules to end the year.
Based on points in the standings, Carolina’s average opponent over their final 10 games boasts 81.1 points. That’s the same as the Lightning, whose opponents average 81.1, and far less than the Bruins, who will face an opponent with an average of 85.5 points the rest of the way. The only team with an arguably weaker schedule is the Islanders, which is why the head-to-head with the Hurricanes could make all the difference.
The toughest thing for the Hurricanes is that all of this may be too little, too late. The chance they sweep the final 10 games is slim and it’s going to take favorable results elsewhere in order to make up ground and get into the post-season. Even our own THN Playoff Chances give Carolina a six percent shot at playing into mid-April. But in a league where sometimes the best you can ask for is a steady build and continuous steps forward into contention, the Hurricanes have managed to put themselves into the post-season conversation.
No matter where they end up now — be it inside or outside the post-season — it’d be hard to look at this season as anything less than promising.
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