With 16 games left in the 2010-11 regular season, the Carolina Hurricanes again find themselves on the outside looking in. On Thursday night the Canes sat in seventh place in the Eastern Conference playoff race, having just knocked off ninth-seed Buffalo and watched the previous No. 7, the Rangers, lose to Minnesota.
But what a difference a few days make.
Carolina headed to Chicago for the back end of a back-to-back Friday, while the Rangers traveled to Ottawa and then back home to host the Flyers Sunday. The Sabres were in Philadelphia Saturday and then Minnesota Sunday. With Justin Peters in net, the Canes fell to the Blackhawks, 5-2, while the teams chasing them each got four out of a possible four points over the weekend.
That quickly, the chased became the chaser.
While Peters can't be solely blamed for Friday's loss, coach Paul Maurice has made it pretty clear that he expects Cam Ward in the nets the rest of the way. And why not? Ward has shown that he can not only handle a heavy work load, but has a history of being at his best in pressure situations. The scary thing for the other teams battling Carolina for the bottom playoff seeds in the East is that Ward, when faced with a crucial "push toward the playoffs" stretch, is getting better and better each time he is given the opportunity to lead his team to the postseason.
While Ward's playoff performances in 2006 and 2009 are well-known, his play in the final 16 games of each season the Canes have been within striking distance of the postseason should give the Hurricanes hope.
2006-07: The Hurricanes faced an uphill battle all season, with injuries and inconsistent play eventually keeping the Stanley Cup champions from returning to the postseason. For Ward, it was his first year as a starter after he led the Canes to the championship and won the Conn Smythe Trophy the previous June. Carolina was 8-7-1 in their final 16 games, but Ward reeled off wins in his first two starts of the season's final month before he was injured against the Rangers when he was cut by a skate. John Grahame lost that game in overtime, but won two of the next three in relief of the injured Ward. Ward returned when he replaced a pulled Grahame on March 22, and the team rallied for a come-from-behind win. But the injury layoff seemed to affect Ward, and he was just 2-4 in his final six starts as the Canes fell four points short of eighth place, finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference.
2007-08: Carolina's failure to make the playoffs this season is often remembered for the season finale loss to the Florida Panthers that capped a 1-3 finish, opening the door for Washington to win the division and earn the Southeast's lone playoff spot. But Ward performed well down the stretch, going 10-5-1 in playing all 16 games, including running off a five-game winning streak. The Canes wound up ninth in the conference, two points shy of three teams for a playoff berth.
2008-09: Ward's most recent playoff push is his best. He started 15 of the final 16 games, going 11-2-2 as Carolina catapulted to sixth in the Eastern Conference and eventually cruised all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Ward ran off a nine-game winning streak during the regular season's final month, and registered two shutouts and allowed just 31 goals in his final 15 starts in leading Carolina back to the postseason.
Carolina's final 16 games are not easy, but 10 will be at the RBC Center where Ward is 17-9-3 this season. There are also seven games remaining against Southeast Division foes: three (two at home) against Tampa Bay and two each vs. Washington (both in D.C.) and Atlanta (one home, one away). Ward is 1-0-1 against the Lightning, 0-2-1 vs. the Caps, and 3-0 when facing the Thrashers this season. There are also two games left against the Sabres — one at the RBC, the other in Buffalo — and Ward is 1-1 this year against his Northeast rivals. The remaining games are all at home, and Ward's record against those teams this season is: Columbus (N/A), Toronto (2-1), N.Y. Islanders (2-0), Ottawa (2-1), and Detroit (N/A).
With 90 points as a projected cut line for the postseason, Ward and the Canes — at 71 points — should need around 19 points in their final 16 games to make the playoffs. With 10 RBC outings left, Carolina has the most remaining home games of the contenders for the final spots: Rangers (74 points, 14 games remaining, seven at home), Buffalo (72 points, 17 games remaining, nine at home), Toronto (67 points, 16 games remaining, seven at home), Atlanta (65 points, 16 games remaining, six at home), and New Jersey (64 points, 17 games remaining, nine at home). Of those teams, only Buffalo and New York have winning records on the road (but also hold losing records at home).
There's no doubt the Hurricanes need Ward at his best if they are to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs. If history, trends and (finally) some scheduling in Carolina's favor are any indication, expect the Canes to be playing in mid-April.