After a win last night in St. Louis, the Carolina Hurricanes improved their record to 17-14-7 for 41 total points. That puts them at 11th in the Eastern Conference and 6th in the Metropolitan Division. They clearly have some work to do to climb into a playoff spot.
Considering the strength of the Metro Division this season (the third place Rangers would lead every other division in hockey), the Hurricanes’ best shot at a playoff berth has to be one of the two Wild Card spots. In the highly competitive Wild Card race, the Hurricanes are just four points in back of the slumping Philadelphia Flyers with 2 games in hand. However, there are still two teams (Tampa Bay and Toronto) between the Canes and the coveted WC2 spot, and we all know how difficult it is to jump teams in a playoff race.
Other Teams in the Race
When chasing a playoff spot, every game in the league becomes important. What teams can we expect to heat up? What teams will slow down? These questions really don’t have definitive answers, but we can give our best guess. We are going to assume that the three teams leading the Metro (Columbus, Pittsburgh, New York) are all out of sight. Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting teams in the race.
The Broad Street Bullies are an interesting team this season. A hot but top heavy forward corps led by Wayne Simmonds, Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek puts them within the top 10 in the league in goals per game. However, they are 27th in the league in goals against per game. As we know in Carolina, goal scoring comes and goes. When the river runs dry a playoff team needs a stout defense to gut out important games.
The Flyers put together an impressive ten-game win streak earlier this season in which they were having no trouble scoring. In the 8 games since the streak ended, their primary scorers have cooled off significantly and they have posted a 1-5-2 record as a result of it. We can expect the Flyers to continue to cool off as long as their defense and goalies remain among the worst in the league.
The Lightning have had a bit of an underwhelming season up to this point. After three straight playoff berths and a Stanley Cup Final appearance, the Bolts are fighting to keep their head above water while captain and franchise center Steven Stamkos is sidelined until at least March.
Luckily for them, they’re experienced. They have a strong core of primary and secondary scorers that perform with or without their captain in the ranks. I don’t expect for Tampa to cool off as the season progresses; rather just the opposite. The Lightning are a team that I would expect to secure a spot in the Atlantic Division, perhaps leaving the Bruins or the Leafs on the outside looking in.
The Maple Leafs are enjoying a renaissance in this centennial season led by Arizona-born center Auston Matthews. The rookie center sits at 4th in the league with 20 goals scored. And he isn’t the only one scoring; the Leafs are 5th in the league in goals per game. Mike Babcock is certainly making his presence felt in Toronto as you can see the culture of that hockey team shifting quickly.
However, the Leafs boast the 4th youngest team in the NHL. Their two biggest impact players are both under the age of 20. While this is good news for them long term, I think that their inexperience will hurt them down the stretch this season. Oh and by the way, can you guess one of the three teams younger than them? That’s right: the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Bruins are a team that are at a bit of an impasse coming into this season. After finishing just three points out of the playoffs last season, the Bruins made some moves this offseason to ensure a playoff future. Most notably, they signed 32-year-old David Backes to a five-year deal.
It’s clear that the Bruins are looking to make an offseason splash now, so expect them to be all in this season. With 44 points through 41 games, the Bruins are a fringe team and the way I see it, very dangerous to the Hurricanes. An older core with a lot of experience in the league will be tough to handle in a playoff race.
How do the Canes punch their ticket to the dance?
So what do the Hurricanes need to do to lock up a Wild Card spot come April? Well, the WC1 and WC2 spot were secured last year with 100 and 96 points respectively. The year before, 99 and 98 points. In the three seasons since realignment, an average of about 96 points are needed to secure the last Wild Card spot.
Are the Hurricanes on a 96 point pace right now? The club has 41 points just 46% of the way through the season. Assuming they stay on pace, they will finish with an estimated 89 points. This is a 3 point improvement over last season, but still just not enough to cut it.
So often we get wrapped up in how other teams in the race are playing, but it really doesn’t change the fact that every playoff hopeful is racing towards a final number. For the Canes, that number is somewhere between 95 and 100 points in the standings. The Hurricanes need to find a way to make up those tough 6 to 10 points necessary to push them over the top.
To get to 95, the Hurricanes could finish out the second half of the season with a 24-14-6 record which would give them an 77% chance of post season hockey according to the simulations on Sportclubstats.com. Is that realistic? I think so.
But it doesn’t leave them with much of a margin for error. A 3-6-1 stretch (or something similar), no matter where it comes in the schedule, will likely be an obstacle too high to overcome. Barring a crazy winning streak, the Canes need to play at least .600 hockey - essentially a bunch of 5-3-2 ten-game stretches - the rest of the way.
The Hurricanes are a better team this season than last, so a 95-100 point total come April is not at all out of reach. If goalie play continues to impress and the young defensive core stays strong and healthy, then Bill Peters’ system will allow the team to excel like we saw flashes of last season. Playoff hopes in Carolina are very much alive.