There are less than two weeks left in the calendar's shortest month, but chances are that stretch will seal the Carolina Hurricanes' fate — one way or the other.
While the Hurricanes will host the Eastern Conference's top team, the Bruins, Tuesday for Glen Wesley's jersey retirement, the remainder of February offers the Canes a chance to grab a hold of a playoff spot and justify adding — rather than auctioning — talent at the March 4 trade deadline. Let's have a look at the rest of February.
Feb. 17: Boston Bruins
The aforementioned Glen Wesley Night. The Canes host one of the league's top teams on a night when they honor one of the franchise's most reliable players. But the B's have been reliable against Carolina this year, winning the first three games of the season series heading into the finale. The good news? The Canes will likely get a lift from a big event and big crowd. Plus, Boston is in their biggest slump of the season, dropping four straight and managing just seven goals in that span.
Feb. 19: at New York Islanders
Not much to be said here. The Islanders are the league's worst team and have recently lost their No. 2 scorer, ex-Cane Doug Weight, to injury and have an average AHL tandem guarding the nets. The Hurricanes absolutely need to leave Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum with two points. No excuses. This is the second of four meetings. Carolina won the first, 4-3.
Feb. 20: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Bolts are 2-4 this month and both victories are against poor teams: the Isles and the Maple Leafs. Tampa Bay's front office is looking ahead to the trade deadline and the draft — expect a fire sale followed by another high first-round pick. Standout goalie Mike Smith has been great this year, but he's battling post-concussion syndrome and his day-to-day status could stretch past this game. Without Smith — or even a rusty Smith — the Canes, who have been good all year on the back end of back-to-back games and are 4-0 against the Lightning, need two more here.
Feb. 22: Colorado Avalanche
Despite their seesaw win over Detroit Sunday, the Avs are still the Western Conference's bottom feeders. There's plenty of firepower in their lineup — despite their pedestrian 2.6 goal per game — but the goaltending has been erratic at best. Colorado's 10 road wins are the sixth-fewest in the NHL and only one team (the Islanders) have more than the Avalanche's 16 road losses. The Hurricanes will be expected to win this lone meeting with the Avs.
Feb. 24: at Ottawa Senators
The Senators have responded to their coaching change, but that doesn't mean they're the team that sat at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings since the lockout. Ottawa's 2.46 goals per game is the fourth worst in the league (though only .07 worse than Carolina's 2.53, who are 24th in the NHL). Brian Elliott has grabbed the reins in net, going 7-3-2 with a .915 save percentage. This is the third of four meetings between the two teams, with them having split the first two. You know Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves will be up for this one.
Feb. 26: Buffalo Sabres
This won't be easy, but given Sunday's dominant effort the Canes have proven they can take it to the Sabres. Buffalo is sorely missing sniper Thomas Vanek, who has a fractured jaw. He likely won't be back in time for this game. This will be the third of four meetings this year, with the teams each winning one so far.
Feb. 28: at Atlanta Thrashers
Another cellar dweller, the Thrashers find themselves in the John Tavares/Victor Hedman sweepstakes instead of the playoff hunt. They are the only team in the NHL yet to hit double digits in home wins, and no one is close to their 17 losses at Philips Arena (the Avs are next with 14, though they have 16 wins at the Pepsi Center). Still, the Canes have won just three of the five meetings so far this year.
So there it is. Seven games, five of which are against teams beneath Carolina in the standings, plus one against slumping Boston, and another against rival Buffalo. I won't say that the Canes should win all seven, but opportunities like this need to be capitalized on and if Carolina wants to make a legitimate run at the playoffs, I'd say they need at least five wins (or some combination of 10 points) before the schedule turns significantly harder.
Without that, it might be time to think about restructuring the roster instead of taking playoff reservations.