Hurricanes at Blue Jackets, 7 p.m., FSNCR, 99.9 FM

Canes still hope to make playoffs

calexander@newsobserver.comMarch 23, 2012 

  • A look at the Carolina Hurricanes’ remaining eight games:

    March 23 – at Columbus Blue Jackets

    March 24 – at Detroit Red Wings

    March 27 – at Toronto Maple Leafs

    March 30 – Winnipeg Jets

    March 31 – New Jersey Devils

    April 3 – at Ottawa Senators

    April 5 – Montreal Canadiens

    April 7 – at Florida Panthers

— Can they or can’t they?

Plausible or pipedream?

Enough time left, or already too late?

Questions, questions. The Carolina Hurricanes still face a bunch of them with eight games remaining in the regular season.

The Canes, who are on a four-game winning streak, believe there’s still enough time and games left to land a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs. With 75 points, they were in 11th place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference and five points behind the eighth-place Washington Capitals – and out of playoff position – after a tense 3-1 win Wednesday over the Florida Panthers.

The Caps had a chance to add to their cushion Thursday with a game in Philadelphia against the Flyers. The Buffalo Sabres also have 80 points.

“Anything can happen,” Canes goaltender Cam Ward said after Wednesday’s game. “As long as we keep taking care of our business, who knows what can happen.”

The Hurricanes (30-29-15) moved above .500 for the first time since Nov. 1 by beating the Panthers, the Southeast Division leaders, at PNC Arena. The win streak is their longest of the season and they’re 16-6-8 in their past 30 games.

“At the (NHL) All-Star break we had a meeting and we said to the guys, ‘This is when the big boys come out to play,’” Canes coach Kirk Muller said. “This is where you really have to step up, and our guys have been doing that since then.”

Eric Staal is piling up points – 44 in the past 35 games. The team captain scored two goals against the Panthers after his two goals and an assist Sunday in a 4-3 comeback road victory over the Winnipeg Jets.

“He’s just been dominant. Vintage Eric Staal,” Ward said.

Jeff Skinner, sidelined part of the season with a concussion, is back in form. Joni Pitkanen and Tuomo Ruutu are back from injuries.

Pitkanen, after missing 44 games recovering from a concussion and knee surgery, had a goal and assist in his return Wednesday. The defenseman should add more offensive punch to a back end that has steadily produced.

Ward, with 30 saves against the Panthers, won his third straight start. Ward now has appeared in 62 games this season, although Brian Boucher returned from a groin injury and was the winner Saturday against the Minnesota Wild.

Muller has said he would not guess at a “magic number” of points that may be needed to earn a playoff spot. But a possible target could be 89 points, meaning the Canes would need to go 7-1-0 or 6-0-2 and have the three teams ahead of them – the Caps, Sabres and Jets – all fade at the end.

The Sabres could prove to be the most troublesome for the Canes. They’re 11-2-4 since Feb. 17 and goalie Ryan Miller is playing his best hockey in a couple of years.

The schedule is weighted against the Hurricanes, who play their next three games on the road: tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Saturday in Detroit against the Red Wings and then Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Carolina is 11-16-9 on the road this season but won back-to-back road games last weekend against the Wild and Jets.

“We’ll just give it all we’ve got every game and take care of our games and see where we wind up at the end of the year,” Muller said.

Some might scoff and call that coachspeak, but the Canes still believe the can do it.

As Ward put it, “Let’s keep this thing rolling.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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