The Carolina Hurricanes go back to work Thursday, with much to be done.
After taking their five-day NHL bye week, the Canes will gather at PNC Arena for a 4 p.m. practice. On Friday, the Colorado Avalanche — the source of much NHL trade speculation — will be the opponent as the Canes begin a five-game homestand.
“It’s a fast-paced game and when you’re off the ice and away from that speed it can be difficult getting back,” Canes center Jordan Staal said before the break. “Every team does it, so it’s the team that adapts well that benefits the most.”
The Hurricanes (24-22-7) lost their last five games before the NHL All-Star break. They lost their last two before the bye week. All seven losses were in regulation and the failure to pick up points has significantly lowered their playoff chances.
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After Wednesday’s games, the Canes were eight points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, who held the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with 63 points. There were six teams between the Canes and the Leafs, all tightly bunched.
With 29 games remaining, to be played in 52 days, these questions must be answered:
Are the Canes too far behind?
Logic would say yes and the math doesn’t look good. In a system that rewards a losing team with a point in overtime or shootout games, catching up is harder, even with games-in-hand.
When the Leafs faced the New York Islanders on Tuesday, it was a no-win situation for the Canes. Both teams are ahead of them in the standings and the Leafs picked up two points with a 7-1 win. That’s the quandary for Carolina that only something like a 9-1-1 run may alleviate.
Buyer or seller?
That question could be answered after the next five games. If the Canes make a run at home, general manager Ron Francis could look to work a deal or two before the March 1 NHL trade deadline. If not, he could move out some players.
There has been much NHL scuttlebutt about the Avs wanting to move forwards Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog, and the asking price is said to be high for each. Avs general manager Joe Sakic is traveling with the team and should be in Raleigh on Friday.
Will Bickell return?
Canes forward Bryan Bickell, who was diagnosed in November with multiple sclerosis, has been working hard in practices. He sounds like a man who plans on getting back in the lineup this season and says he’s “very close” to being in game shape.
It could be that Bickell first goes to the Charlotte Checkers for a conditioning stint in the AHL. The Canes have 13 healthy forwards available, but having Bickell back would be a motivational boost – Canes coach Bill Peters calls Bickell an “unreal source of inspiration.”
Can Lack help out?
With the compressed schedule, the Canes need goalies Cam Ward and Eddie Lack to both consistently produce. Ward has played in 45 of the Canes’ 53 games and the wear-and-tear has been showing. Lack has been a relative no-show all season because of concussions and spotty play.
For the Canes to be a factor in the chase for a playoff spot, Lack has to immediately return to form, play well and shoulder some of the load. Ward needs to be the kind of goalie he was in December and January, when the veteran allowed three or fewer goals in 14 straight starts.
Where are the leaders?
Peters handed out four A’s before the season, making Staal, Jeff Skinner, Justin Faulk and Victor Rask alternate captains. They’ll all need to step it up — Rask has gone 11 straight games without a point — for the Canes to make a push.
This is crunch time, when the intensity of games ratchets up. Do the Canes have what it takes? They’re about to find out.
Avalanche at Hurricanes
When: 7:30 p.m., Friday.
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh.