The Carolina Hurricanes are coming off the best March in the history of the franchise. They have won nine games in a row at home, and six in a row overall. But even though they find themselves in a favorable, sixth place in the Eastern Conference, they are still precariously close to falling out of the playoffs.
4- Philadelphia 92 points
5- Pittsburgh 92 points
6- Carolina 91 points
7- NY Rangers 89 points
8- Montreal 88 points
9- Florida 87 points
With five games left in the season, they probably still need to win at least one more game, and quite possibly two, in order to make the cut. There will be no "gimme's". Last season with just four games left, the team needed to win two of the final four to guarantee themselves a spot, and couldn't do it. And three of the last four games were against bottom feeders Tampa Bay and Florida.
Tonight's game at the RBC is not against a bottom feeder, it's against a hungry New York Rangers team which is nipping at Carolina's heels. Behind them is a Montreal team which is finally starting to win again, and next in line are the Panthers, a group which has now won three straight. As you can see from the standings, there is not much room for error, for any of the teams.
That's what makes tonight's matchup an important one.
While the Canes have won their last six, the Rangers have been a bit uneven. They easily beat the Devils 3-0 on Monday, but lost to the Pens last week Saturday, 4-3. Before that they lost to the Thrashers in a shootout.
Henrik Lundqvist will be in goal for the New Yorkers and will be facing Cam Ward, who will be making his 25th straight appearance.
One always has to keep an eye out for Sean Avery, the Ranger pest. The team is led in scoring by Nik Antropov and Nikolai Zherdev, who each have 57 points. But on paper, this is a potential team of superstars, and any of them could strike. Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Markus Naslund, Wade Redden, and Derek Morris could all be dangerous.
Of course the Hurricanes are led in scoring by Ray Whitney, Eric Staal, and Tuomo Ruutu. Jussi Jokinen is still filling in for the injured Matt Cullen, but expect to see Scott Walker return to the lineup for the first time in 11 games. He will fill in for one of the fourth liners, my guess would be for Ryan Bayda. Tim Conboy brings a toughness that is needed in this game, and Dwight Helminen is the only natural center of the group.
The lines should look to be the following:
Staal, Ruutu, Cole
Jokinen, Whitney, LaRose
Brind'Amour, Eaves, Samsonov
Helminen, Conboy, Walker
Rod Brind'Amour has the longest current scoring streak on the team and has points in six consecutive games. Tonight will also be the captain's 1400th career NHL game, and what a career it has been.
Since the newsstand was posted this morning, John Forslund has submitted a new story about the return of Scott Walker, and how this change in the lineup is not the same as the tinkering of last year's lineup when Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen, and Justin Williams were all prematurely put back into service. We will see if he is right.
If he is healthy and ready, Walker is an obvious upgrade in skill and grit over the other fourth liners, but sometimes team chemistry is a fragile thing.
Will the Hurricanes win a franchise record 10th consecutive time at home, or will the four day rest be more a hinderence than a help? The game tonight will be broadcast on television locally by FS Carolinas starting at 7PM.
(UPDATE: This game will be broadcast in HD)
Television: Fox Sports Carolinas HD (TWCable Ch. 50 (SD)/272 (HD); Dish Network Ch. 444/9515; DirecTV Ch. 645/645-1)