Canes seek breathing room before break

calexander@newsobserver.comJanuary 30, 2014 

  • 2014 Stanley Cup playoff format

    There are 16 teams in the playoffs, eight each from the Eastern and Western conferences.

    The top three teams in each of the four divisions qualify. Two wild-card teams from each conference qualify, regardless of division, based on point totals (and tiebreakers, if necessary).

    In the first round, the division leader in each conference with the most points plays the wild-card team with the fewest points. The other division leader faces the wild-card team with the most points. The second and third seeds in each division face each other.

— The Carolina Hurricanes have four games left before the break for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and could have goaltender Cam Ward available to play.

Ward has been sidelined with a lower-body injury and has not played since New Year’s Eve. But he put in a full practice Thursday at PNC Arena, was activated off injured reserve and sent to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL for a conditioning stint.

Canes coach Kirk Muller said Ward would join the Checkers in Cleveland and could start one or both of back-to-back games against the Lake Erie Monsters on Friday and Saturday.

“The opportunity to go down and play will get him in a good mindset,” Muller said. “The biggest thing is, health-wise, that he can get through a game and that he feels good and feels comfortable.”

A healthy, effective Ward would make Muller and the Canes more comfortable. Ward and Anton Khudobin, who also went to Charlotte for a few games in late-December after recovering from an ankle injury, could develop into the dependable goaltending tandem the Canes envisioned before the season.

The Hurricanes have a four-game homestand before the 16-day Olympic break, beginning with Friday’s game against the St. Louis Blues, but play 16 of the final 25 regular-season games on the road.

In the NHL’s new playoff format, the top three teams in each of the four divisions – the Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions in the Eastern Conference, the Central and Pacific divisions in the Western Conference – qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Two wild-card teams from each conference also qualify, based on point totals and tiebreakers, and could come from the same division.

After Wednesday’s NHL games, the Canes (24-20-9, 57 points) held the final wild-card spot. But the Metropolitan Division has become claustrophobic. Through Wednesday, the second-place New York Rangers and seventh-place New Jersey Devils were separated by six points.

“Everybody is trying to get some breathing room,” defenseman Mike Komisarek said.

Winning games at home is a must. That makes the four games before the Olympic break even more critical for the Canes, who have not reached the playoffs since 2009.

“It’s huge,” forward Nathan Gerbe said. “You want to put yourself in a good position going into the break, so that when it starts back up you’re right in the playoff hunt. We don’t want to fall off and we don’t want to fall behind.”

Because the Jan. 7 game in Buffalo was postponed and rescheduled for Feb. 25, the Canes’ first five games after the Olympics will be on the road. Carolina is a respectable 11-10-4 away from PNC Arena this season and a more pedestrian 13-10-5 at home, 17th in the league.

“We’ve got to make this building tough to play in,” center Jordan Staal said. “We’ve got to get our points here.”

The Hurricanes have won six of the past eight at home, starting a postgame ritual of giving their fans a stick salute after victories. On Monday, they had the home fans roaring as they rallied for three goals in the third period to beat Columbus 3-2.

Staal was a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 when they swept the Canes in the Eastern Conference finals on their way to winning the Cup. He has a good feel for what separates the teams that make it to the playoffs and those that don’t.

“Everyone elevates their game toward the end,” Staal said. “Obviously the games become that much bigger every time out. I think not beating yourself is always a big thing, getting the big goals when you can but not giving up all those opportunities to beat yourself.

“I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that, and consistently sticking to our game and consistently going at teams and not cheating to win games but doing it the right way. In the end, if we do that, we should get the right result.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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