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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."

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

Hurricanes.

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.

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