Carolina Hurricanes

Hot run at home has Canes on cusp of playoff spot

The Carolina Hurricanes liked playing, and winning, four straight games at home in PNC Arena.

And the next four games? It should be interesting.

After a 7-4 win Saturday over the New York Islanders, the Canes moved one point out of playoff position in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. They also have three games-in-hand on the Philadelphia Flyers, who hold the final wild-card playoff spot and lost a road game Sunday against the Washington Capitals.

“We’re right there,” Canes coach Bill Peters said of his team’s position.

Staying there is another matter. The Canes (21-15-7) now face this stretch: at Columbus, at home against Pittsburgh, at Columbus again and then at Washington.

The Canes have had their stumbles on the road this season (6-11-6), but going 14-1-1 in their past 16 home games has pushed them up the standings and into enviable position midway through January.

“It’s weird with our home and road situation, where we play really well at home but can’t seem to find that on the road,” forward Lee Stempniak said. “I think at home, the way we’re playing, maybe it’s some of the matchups we’re able to have. It seems like we’re playing a pretty complete game. We don’t give much up.

“Our strength lies in our skating, and it seems at home we really find our legs and skate offensively.”

The Canes scored 21 goals in beating the Boston Bruins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Buffalo Sabres and then the Islanders in the homestand. Playing before a crowd of 16,640 Saturday that turned out on “Star Wars Night” at PNC Arena, the Canes turned the game into a test of speed and transition that the Islanders couldn’t handle.

“They put a lot of pressure on our defense,” Isles coach Jack Capuano said.

And on goalie Thomas Greiss. The Canes had 45 shots, one shy of their season high at Pittsburgh on Dec. 28.

Jordan Staal’s line, with wingers Brock McGinn and Elias Lindholm, combined for 14 shots. McGinn had his first career four-point game with a goal and three assists, and Staal and Lindholm each had a goal and two assists.

It’s not all about numbers. The Staal line at times had the Islanders flummoxed in the defensive zone, making tape-to-tape passes, moving the puck crisply and playing with a physical edge.

Peters is relying on all four lines, and says he doesn’t like to number the lines. Each has a role and each has been doing it well.

Jay McClement’s line, Stempniak said, “Brings a ton of energy, a ton of presence on the forecheck and that’s something we all feed off of.”

The energy of the team and refusal to be deflated when they fall behind is a trait that is becoming a part of the Canes’ team identity. They trailed in all four games in the homestand but won by getting stronger as the games progressed.

The Islanders had a 3-1 lead early in the second period. By the end of the period, it was 4-3, Canes. The Isles tied it early in the third, but the Canes again surged ahead.

“It was a different kind of game, an open game with a lot of opportunities,” Staal said. “We gave up a few too many chances but we found a way to put the puck in the net and found a way to get two points.”

In the NHL’s playoff structure, the top three teams in each division earn a playoff spot, regardless of the point totals. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, have 48 points but hold the third spot in the Atlantic Division.

The top three spots in the Metropolitan, the Canes’ division, are held by Washington (63), Columbus (62) and Pittsburgh (57). The New York Rangers, another Metro team, are in the first wild-card spot with 57 points.

That’s what the Canes are faced with. The Metro has been the NHL’s most dominant division. To reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009, the Canes likely will need to secure a wild-card berth.

The Ottawa Senators have 48 points and two games in hand on the Canes. The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning are just behind the Sens. It should be some chase.

The Canes’ have some power-play issues that need to be rectified — one power-play goal in the past 13 games – but they’re scoring at even strength and getting dependable goaltending and penalty-killing.

“I know our conference is very good and the Metropolitan Division is very good,” Peters said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

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