Can Canes claw their way into postseason?

calexander@newsobserver.comFebruary 25, 2012 

— Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Bryan Allen has long since given up on trying to do the math.

Allen just knows the Canes have to win games - a lot of them - between now and the end of the season to have any hope of being in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He knows tonight's game against the Florida Panthers at the RBC Center probably fits somewhere in the must-win category in that it's a Southeast Division matchup.

For the Canes, time is growing short and the odds of making the playoffs long with just 21 games to play. But there still is time.

"There are always those stats saying you need so many points to get into the playoffs," Allen said. "There are so many games left and you have to win so many games.

"That's stuff for the media and the fans and people to have fun with, to say this team will make it and this team won't. But the feeling we have is we just have to keep winning and we'll have a chance."

Is it realistic to think the Hurricanes, with a 23-26-12 record and 58 points, can pull it off? Maybe. And maybe not.

1. The Canes are playing their best hockey

Since a 2-1 road loss to the Washington Capitals on Jan. 15, the Canes have picked up points in 12 of their past 14 games, going 7-2-5. They've done it with versatile defenseman Joni Pitkanen (concussion/knee surgery) sidelined since early December, and more recently with forwards Tuomo Ruutu and Chad LaRose out of the lineup with upper-body injuries.

All three players could return in a week to 10 days, giving the Canes more depth, experience and energy for the final push.

"We're not giving up hope," general manager Jim Rutherford said. "People assume we're going to start moving players and start rebuilding for next season, but we still have hope."

2. The captain is on a tear

Eric Staal's slow start to the season is a distant memory. Staal has 30 points in his past 23 games after earning an assist in the Canes' 3-2 shootout loss Thursday to the Anaheim Ducks.

With Staal back to his usual self, the Canes' top line has been highly productive. Left wing Jiri Tlusty has a nine-game point streak and Staal a seven-game streak. Right wing Jerome Samson scored in the Ducks game.

As Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said, "Eric Staal is leading the way. When he gets hot, it doesn't matter who's on his wings. He makes them better and he carries them."

3. No one is making a big move

The Panthers held the Southeast Division lead until Thursday, taking a 3-2 shootout loss against the Minnesota Wild to fall behind the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets, by edging Tampa Bay 4-3, took over first place with 67 points.

Florida (27-20-12) now is eighth in the NHL's Eastern Conference with 66 points but is 4-5-1 in its past 10 games. Washington, in ninth place with 65 points, is 3-6-1. The Toronto Maple Leafs, in tenth place with 65 points and one less win than Washington, are also 3-6-1.

"You never know," Canes forward Brandon Sutter said. "It's not crazy. If you can get some wins and get within four or five points in the last 10 or 15 games, you never know. We've definitely got a chance."

1. Too much traffic in front

For all the optimistic talk, the Canes will have to pass too many teams to finish in eighth place in the East and claim the last playoff berth, or to win the Southeast.

With the NHL's three-point system - two points for a win, one point for an overtime or shootout loss - the teams ahead of the Hurricanes in the East will be collecting points. As the chaser in the race, any regulation loss for the Canes becomes a dagger.

The Hurricanes do have nine games remaining against Southeast teams, including four with the Panthers and two with the Jets. The Canes probably need to win nearly all those games, and in regulation.

"We have to win games and see where it takes us," Rutherford said. "We can't dictate what happens to everyone else, only the teams we're playing against."

2. Overtime and shootout woes

Carolina has squandered far too many points in overtime games and shootouts this season. The loss to the Ducks dropped the Canes to 0-5 in shootouts and 2-12 overall in overtime games.

"Overtimes and shootouts haven't been a strong suit for us this year," Staal said. "I don't know what to say. It's not for lack of trying. We've had opportunities. At times we've needed the goal, at times we've needed the save, and points are getting away."

Against the Ducks, Jeff Skinner, Staal and Sutter all failed to score in the shootout. The Canes' shooters are 2-15 this season - Jussi Jokinen producing both shootout goals.

Just think if the Canes had been able to win four or five more of those games - how big those points would be. But the damage has been done.

3. Too much road time at the end

After the Canes' six-game homestand ends next Saturday, they will play 12 of their final 17 games away from the RBC Center.

Carolina is 7-14-8 on the road this season, but is 3-2-4 in its past nine road games and has wins over the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens.

"I'm very comfortable with our team now on the road," Muller said. "We're more consistent, we're battling better, we're competing harder on the road, and we're in every game."

The problem: a .500 road record, or a little better than .500, in the last 12 road games probably won't be good enough.

Alexander: 829-8945

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