The press level at PNC Arena was overflowing with NHL scouts Friday. The seating chart listed: Blackhawks, Capitals, Predators, Blue Jackets, Bruins, Stars, Senators, and two from the Buffalo Sabres.
It’s that time of the season. Scouts are on the prowl, everywhere. General managers huddle at games. Proposals are passed back and forth.
After their 5-2 win over the Sharks on Friday, the Carolina Hurricanes again were two points out of playoff position. Ahead of them in wild-card positions were the Tampa Bay Lightning, which comes into PNC Arena on Sunday to face the Canes, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, both with 64 points (and games in hand). One point ahead of the Canes are the New Jersey Devils.
The New York Islanders, after a 1-0 win over the Devils on Friday, are third in the Metro Division and maintained their five-point edge on the Canes.
Jeff Skinner, whose two goals Friday included his seventh game-winner of the season, said it’s hard not to focus on the standings.
“Every day you come to the rink it’s two big points on the line,” Skinner said. “We know where we are. I think we’ve been able to battle pretty hard to get back in this situation and put ourselves in a spot where we’re in the hunt. We want to stay there and keep moving up.”
Such is the apparent dilemma for Carolina general manager Ron Francis. The Canes are 19-9-6 since hitting their low point in the season — the 5-1 home-ice loss to the Devils in early December. They’re playing good, sound hockey.
But Francis has much to consider before the Feb. 29 trade deadline. The Canes play three of four at home to end the month, but play seven of the first eight games in March on the road and nine of 14 overall away from home in the month.
Carolina is 8-6-3 on the road since the December turnaround and 12-13-4 overall. Can the Canes make it through March and still be a playoff contender come April? Good question.
Of course, it may be a moot point. Francis, who keeps things close to the vest, may already have made personnel decisions on such players as Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg and perhaps others due to become unrestricted free agents after the season.
Staal created a stir Thursday before the Ottawa game when he told the Ottawa media, “I’m not going to be crushed if a decision is made and I’m moving on for a different opportunity.” That was only a part of what he said. In fact, he said much the same as he has since April, and again insisted he enjoys playing for the Canes and wants to help the team reach the playoffs again and contend for another Stanley Cup.
Asked about the Ottawa comments after Friday’s game, Staal said, “It was twisted. I didn’t like that. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have answered some of the questions hypothetically. That happens on occasion. I’ll learn from it.
“My focus is with this group and this team and winning games and enjoying coming to the rink with this group.”
Still, Staal said the constant speculation has been wearing on him. He now has gone 14 games without a goal, although his hard work around the net Friday resulted in a power-play goal for Skinner that gave the Canes a 3-1 lead.
Staal took the puck to the net and initially was called for incidental contact with Sharks goalie Martin Jones as Skinner scored. Canes coach Bill Peters challenged the no-goal ruling and the call was overturned, giving Staal an assist and his first point in eight games.
“I want any point any way I can get it,” Staal said. “It was nice to contribute offensively. I’m counted on to do that on this team and it hasn’t been the case for a while.”
While Staal said the past few weeks have been difficult personally and there’s much uncertainty, he added, “It’s the reality with the game now and how things are done.”
But Staal also is excited about the Canes’ possibilities. “This is a fun time of year to be involved and playing,” he said.
The clock continues to tick, the deadline approaching. The press level at PNC Arena may again be a busy place Sunday.