At this point of the NHL season, for teams still battling to get into the playoffs, it’s all about staying power.
Fighting through injuries. Making plays that make a difference. Winning the close games. Showing some heart.
The Carolina Hurricanes, despite their 3-2 loss Sunday against the Winnipeg Jets, want to believe they can do that and are willing to take it down to the last day of the regular season, if necessary, to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The final game: Tampa Bay, at PNC Arena.
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If that sounds familiar, it should. It does to Jets coach Paul Maurice.
In 2011, Maurice was coaching the Canes and Carolina needed a victory in its last game, at home, to qualify for the playoffs. The Canes were surging, going 9-2-1 in their previous 12 games, ripping the Atlanta Thrashers 6-1 in Atlanta the night before the finale.
But Tampa Bay ruined everything. The Lightning, who already had locked up a playoff spot and could not improve its seeding, beat the Canes 6-2, allowing the New York Rangers to grab the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
“It was tough because Eric Staal at that point had been playing with a groin injury for about six weeks and he couldn’t skate halfway through that game,” Maurice said Sunday. “It was a grinder. We had a real young group. It was (Jeff) Skinner’s first year.
“They played really, really hard, but to get to the end and have it end like that was really devastating for us.”
Skinner, now in his eighth season, has yet to be in a Stanley Cup playoff game and wants to end that drought this season. So does goalie Cam Ward, who has been a part of some of Carolina’s biggest victories through the years, who helped Maurice and the Canes reach the Eastern Conference finals in 2009, but was the loser that April 2011 night against Tampa Bay.
Ward was in net Sunday, making his third start in four days, against the Jets, whose 39-17-9 record and 87 points have them in second place in the Central Division, headed toward the playoffs.
“Cam, for me, there’s a certain calmness about his personalty, a bit of joy in how he plays,” Maurice said. “He’s pretty relaxed in that net. He’s obviously competitive and when he gets into a good groove and gets to feeling good about his game, he’s as good as (any) of them.”
The Hurricanes will rely on Ward a lot in the final 16 games. Goalie Scott Darling has been too inconsistent, too unpredictable, although the Canes will need at least a few quality starts from him in the stretch run.
Before Sunday’s game, Ward was 18-7-4 with two shutouts in his previous 31 games. He allowed three goals Sunday on 23 shots and twice was beaten by the Jets’ Patrik Laine, one of the NHL’s best snipers.
“He’s keeping us in every game,” Canes forward Brock McGinn said after Sunday’s morning skate. “We know he’s going to be solid back there and we just have to help him out as much as we can.”
Teuvo Teravainen earned a Stanley Cup ring with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015 as a rookie forward surrounded by such stars as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Now the Canes’ leader in points, he’s being counted on to help lead the way to the playoffs and has given his team productive, and recently more feisty, play — his goal Sunday was his fourth in four games and he has scored in six of the past seven.
Carolina's loss to the Jets allowed the Columbus Blue Jackets to move past the Canes and into the second wild-card playoff spot with 71 points. The Florida Panthers, with 70 points after a win Sunday, also slipped ahead of the Canes, who have 69.
“The games mean more,” Teravainen said. “Only wins matter. If you lose a game it feels like the end of the world. If you win, it’s fun.
“It goes up and down and even when you lose games, you just have to stay with it and try to find a way and try to find the confidence.”
In 2009, the Canes clinched their playoff spot in Game 79, on defenseman Anton Babchuk’s overtime goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In 2011, there was the killer loss in Game 82.
This season? The story still is unfolding.
“We believe we’re going to get in, we really do,” Canes coach Bill Peters said before Sunday’s game. “That’s how we approach it. That’s how we look at it every day. We’re planning as if we’re playing beyond Game 82.”