Don't look now, but Hurricanes fans are mentioning the "P" word again. By knocking off Atlanta and Montreal in its past two games, Carolina has slowed each team's run toward the postseason. The Thrashers sit in ninth with 80 points and are two behind the Canadiens, who are tied with Philadelphia and Boston for the final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
After spending most of the season in the NHL basement, the Hurricanes have moved into 11th the Eastern Conference with 75 points, seven points out of the playoffs with five games remaining. Climbing at least three teams (the Rangers are also in the mix with 78 points and a game in hand on the Habs, Canes and Thrashers) is a tall order, one as unlikely as predicting Carolina's early season 14-game losing streak.
That slim chance leads us to tonight, which will be crucial in not only determining if Carolina will continue to hold on that glimmer of postseason hope, but also in determining where the team will draft if they fall short of the playoffs.
Ottawa, who is in fifth and can clinch a berth with a win or Atlanta regulation or overtime loss tonight, hosts Carolina in a must-win for the Canes if they wish hold on to their postseason dreams.
Carolina's new-look defense has fared well since the trade deadline, especially coupled with the solid play in net. Cam Ward has won his first two starts back since suffering a back injury, allowing just one goal each in wins over Atlanta and Montreal this week. Manny Legace, who split duty with Justin Peters (back with the AHL's River Rats) while Ward was out, is set to get the start tonight against the Senators, who will counter with red-hot Brian Elliott.
Ottawa will also get back defenseman Anton Volchenkov — who missed Tuesday's win over the Capitals with an upper body injury — and welcome recently signed Hobey Baker award finalist Bobby Butler, who will make his NHL debut on the Senators' fourth line.
Expect the same forward lines and D pairings from Canes coach Paul Maurice.
But just as interesting are the other conference matchups tonight.
- Atlanta faces Presidents’ Trophy favorite Washington in D.C.
- The Bruins host Florida.
- The Islanders welcome Philadelphia.
All three games — along with the Carolina-Ottawa tilt — will go a long way in determining not only this season's playoff participants, but also where the league's bottom feeders will sit for the NHL draft lottery and late June draft.
Regardless of the Hurricanes-Senators result tonight, Carolina will be hoping for the Panthers and Isles to topple their foes. If Carolina bests the Sens, Florida and New York wins — coupled with a Caps win over Atlanta — would help keep the Hurricanes’ desperate playoff hopes alive. If the Canes lose — in regulation or overtime — chances are anything short of a true miracle will keep them out of the postseason. But then Panthers and Islanders wins would push those two teams up in point totals and perhaps allow them to eventually pass Carolina in the standings, giving the Canes a better shot in the lottery and a higher draft pick.
This is the final of four meetings between Carolina and Ottawa this season. Carolina won both games at the RBC Center, but lost the other meeting in Ottawa. Here's some stats from the season series:
- Ray Whitney has two goals and two assists in three games
- Eric Staal has a goal and two assists in three games
- Brett Carson has a goal and an assist, including his first career NHL goal, vs. Ottawa this year
- Zach Boychuk had two assists in the March 4 meeting
- Two of Rod Brind'Amour's seven goals this season have come against the Senators, and Ottawa is one of two teams the center has a plus rating against this season (plus-3; Nashville is the other at plus-1)
- Tom Kostopolous has two goals in three games this year against the Sens, and 11 points (eight goals, three assists) in 22 career games against them
- Legace is 1-1 against Ottawa this year with a 2.00 goals against average and .938 save percentage
- Jason Spezza has one goal in two games against Carolina this year, but over the course of his career has 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points in 23 career games against the Hurricanes
- Long-time Cane Matt Cullen scored in his only game against his former team this season
- Sniper Alex Kovalev has three goals in three games vs. the Canes this year, but is a combined minus-4
- Elliott has fared well against the Hurricanes, going 2-1 with a 1.56 GAA in four career games, including a 1-0 mark in two appearances this year (1.59 GAA, .925 S%)