Sabres’ slim playoff hopes to be tested by Hurricanes

By Brett Huston
Stats Writer

Buffalo (39-32-9) at Carolina (45-28-7), 7:00 EDT p.m.

RALEIGH, North Carolina (AP) — Fighting for their playoff lives
in the middle of March, the Carolina Hurricanes knew that if
they were going to qualify for the postseason they’d need a
strong finish.

They’re two wins away from making it a perfect one.

The red-hot Hurricanes are now eyeing home-ice advantage in the
first round, and they’ll try to take a big step toward that
Thursday night when they look for their franchise-record 10th
consecutive win overall and 13th straight at the RBC Center in
their regular-season home finale against the Buffalo Sabres.

Those nine wins in a row have Carolina (45-28-7) in the mix for
the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and home ice would be
a big plus for coach Paul Maurice’s club. The Hurricanes have
won a franchise-record 12 straight in their own building, and
set a few records in their latest home game.

Eric Staal had three goals and an assist Tuesday – his
team-record fourth hat trick of the season – against the New
York Islanders to lead Carolina’s 9-0 romp, the worst loss in
New York’s history and a win that tied the Hurricanes with
Philadelphia for fourth place.

“We’re playing the right way. We’re playing at a high,
competitive level, and we’re playing like a well-oiled machine,”
Staal said after scoring for the third straight game. “When
you’re confident and when you’re doing the right things, you’re
going to get good results and nights like tonight.”

The nine-game streak matched the mark reached twice by the
2005-06 team that won the Stanley Cup, and Tuesday goaltender
Cam Ward notched his team-record 39th win, breaking the mark for
victories set by that season’s starter, Martin Gerber, before
Ward supplanted him on his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Ward’s sixth shutout also matched a Hurricanes record.

“It’s great, but the most important thing is that we’re playing
some good hockey right now,” said Ward, who had a 1.28
goals-against average in winning his last seven starts. “We want
to be peaking when we go into the playoffs, and now with two
games left, it’s important that we bear down and have a similar
effort like we did tonight.”

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The Flyers have a game in hand on Carolina in the race for home
ice, but Buffalo (39-32-9) would settle for simply entering the
East’s top eight.

That looked rather unlikely heading into a game Wednesday at
Toronto, as the Sabres trailed the eighth-place New York Rangers
by six points with three games to play. Buffalo, though, pulled
two points closer and stayed in contention for the final spot
with a 3-1 win.

“That’s what we wanted, just to stay alive, stay in this and put
the pressure on the other teams,” said right winger Jason
Pominville, who had a goal and an assist. “We have to look at
our side of things and that’s winning games and it starts with
one and we’ve got to build off this.”

Buffalo will have to beat the red-hot Hurricanes and also
East-best Boston to have a chance to sneak in, but it’ll also
need help from Philadelphia. The Rangers play the Flyers twice
to close their season, and the Sabres will need two regulation
victories from Philadelphia to stay alive.

On their own end, they could also use a standout effort from
Ryan Miller. The veteran goaltender, who missed 13 games with a
high ankle sprain, had allowed at least three goals in all six
games since he returned.

Miller was pulled in his latest start against Carolina after
allowing two goals in the first period in a 3-0 loss in Buffalo
on Feb. 15,. Staal had a goal and two assists for the

Carolina has beaten the Sabres three straight times at the RBC
Center, including a 2-1 shootout win on Feb. 26. Ward stopped 36
shots in that victory, the same number he had in his shutout 11
days earlier.