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Matt Cullen scores first career hat trick as Hurricanes beat Avs 5-2

RALEIGH, N.C. - The Carolina Hurricanes are playing playoff hockey just to get into the post-season.

"We've been playing some pretty good playoff hockey, I think," Matt Cullen said after scoring three goals in the Hurricanes' 5-2 victory over Colorado on Sunday.

"I think the guys have realized the opportunity that we have in front of us. We're right on the doorstep. We've talked a lot about bringing a playoff mentality right now, and we've seen that the last few games and gotten results."

Carolina has won three straight and four of five to move within a point of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes also are just four points out of fourth place.

Cullen had the first hat trick of his 11-year NHL career. He scored in each period, the last an empty-netter to delight the sellout crowd of 18,860 at the RBC Center.

Joni Pitkanen and Ryan Bayda also scored for Carolina.

"We had eight power plays and we didn't get any goals, so that was disappointing," Pitkanen said. "But we got two points, so that's what's most important."

Carolina coach Paul Maurice said the key to making a run at the playoffs was keeping an even keel. He's been all the way to the Stanley Cup finals with this team in 2002, during his first stint as Carolina's coach.

"You look at the standings and you say, 'You're always chasing eighth,"' Maurice said. "But we're four points out of fourth. ... We've won four of the last five games. Had we not, it'd be over. Then you're sitting eight points back, and you're in a world of trouble. Being able to handle that, and not getting too excited about a win like today, that's the key to this time of the year."

Cam Ward made 17 saves for Carolina, which outshot the Avalanche 39-19. Darcy Tucker and Wojtek Wolski scored for the Avalanche. Colorado, playing the second game of a six-game trip, had won three straight.

Cullen recorded his 400th career NHL point with his second goal, which came early in the second period and gave Carolina a 2-1 lead.

Pitkanen followed up Tuomo Ruutu's shot with 2:54 left in the second period to give the Hurricanes a lead they would not relinquish.

Notes: Andrew Raycroft made 34 saves for the Avalanche. ... Chad LaRose had two assists for Carolina ... Cullen now has 19 goals for the season, moving him past Ray Whitney for second on the team behind Eric Staal (27 goals). ... Hugh Shelton, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was part of the Military Appreciation Day crowd.


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