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Playoff Race Update: The Hurricane Strikes Back

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We take a look at the state of the Eastern Conference playoff race and how close the Canes are to grabbing a wild card spot.

Jamie Kellner

The Hurricanes returned to form after a much needed All-Star break, winning three games in a row. The Canes have previously lost five straight which had seriously impacted their playoff hopes. How have the last two weeks affected their chances? Let’s take a look at the status of the other teams in the race and how they stack up against the Hurricanes.


Philadelphia Flyers

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Flyers enjoyed a bit of sustained success leading up to their game in Carolina last week. Coming into last Tuesday, the Flyers had won three straight games. They fell to Carolina by a score of 5-1 in what may end up being a big game in the long run. Philadelphia looked so bad in that game that our friends at Broad Street Hockey are coining it “the worst game of the year”.

The Flyers have shown us that they are an incredibly streaky hockey team. The team generally has little trouble scoring, but when the river runs dry their defense and goaltending cannot keep them in games. Neither Steve Mason nor Michal Neurvirth have a save percentage about .900. Their weakness shows as they have one of the uglier goal differentials in the league at -18. This is significantly lower than any other playoff hopeful team. Goaltending is what makes good teams great and without a reliable backstop its hard to see the Flyers having any long term success this season.

While they currently occupy the WC2 spot, sportsclubstats.com simulations give the Flyers just a 15% chance to make the postseason.


Toronto Maple Leafs

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Maple Leafs are in a somewhat dangerous position. After winning a crazy 6-5 game in Boston, they have compiled 57 points through 50 games and have five (!) games in hand on their division rival Bruins. Being just one point back, a win would throttle them into the last playoff spot in their division.

It’s a little odd to be talking about the Maple Leafs in a story about playoff hopes but here we are. Led by rookie center Auston Matthews, the Leafs have put together an impressive campaign thus far. Toronto has no trouble finding the back of the net, their 3.08 goals per game average ranks sixth in the NHL. The top five teams ahead of them are all in the top of the league standings.

Going 5-4-1 in their last 10, the Leafs are staying more or less on pace to make the playoffs come April. A sustained streak of impressive play would cement the Leafs’ place in the top three of the Atlantic Division, pushing Boston down into the race for the WC2 spot. Sportsclubstats.com gives the Maple Leafs a 78.7% chance to make the playoffs; I think we can expect their spot to be in the top 3 of the Atlantic Division.


Boston Bruins

NHL: Boston Bruins at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Bruins sit in the third spot in the Atlantic Division with 58 points through 55 games played. The Bruins have had a very streaky last couple weeks, going on extended losing streaks but then resurrecting their hopes by stringing together a few wins (sound familiar?).

Ultimately we can expect the Bruins to fall into the playoff race as soon as the Maple Leafs make up a few games on them. They have a few days off as they don’t play until Thursday against San Jose and they will certainly look to regroup after dropping two straight games against Eastern Conference playoff teams.

At 4-5-1 in their last 10 games, the Bruins aren’t really trending towards a playoff berth this season. Their season has been mediocre in a lot of respects which has lead to a good amount of speculation about head coach Claude Julien’s job security.

Having had plenty of trouble scoring, the B’s have needed to rely on good play from longtime backstop Tuukka Rask. While goaltending can keep you in games, you need to have some amount of sustained scoring to really keep up in a playoff race. The Bruins really don’t have too much of that as they rank 22nd in the league in scoring. Boston’s playoff chances sit at 27.5% according to sportsclubstats.com; they will definitely need to make up some ground if they want to realize their playoff hopes.


Florida Panthers

NHL: Florida Panthers at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Panthers are sitting one point above the Hurricanes in the standings with one more game played. The Cats have enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the last few weeks as they are 5-3-2 in their last ten and are coming off of a three-game win streak. They have a few days off this week and don’t play until Thursday vs. the Kings.

The Panthers are an interesting team to track because of the fact that they are so plagued by injury. With two of their biggest offensive producers (Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov) back in the lineup, they are looking like a dangerous team down the stretch. Florida has gone from a team in turmoil to a likely Wild Card candidate just in the last few weeks.

Sportsclubstats.com gives the Panthers a lowly 13.4% chance to make the playoffs this spring, but I’ll say that this number is much lower than what I imagined. They seem to be picking up steam so keep an eye on this Panthers team as their performance will impact the Hurricanes’ hopes significantly.


New York Islanders

NHL: New York Islanders at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Islanders are coming off of a tight overtime loss to the Hurricanes this weekend in a game that they really would have liked to win. A win in Brooklyn on Saturday would have allowed them to leapfrog the Canes in the standings as they try to climb out of the cellar.

A bottom dweller for most of the season, the Isles are stringing together an impressive streak of games. They are 6-2-2 in their last 10 and have 54 points in 50 games.

Are the Islanders a dangerous team? The short answer is yes. They’re a team who’s been there before and led by captain John Tavares they will be dangerous when they get hot. While they were never really built for failure, they were looking like a draft lottery caliber team for the beginning of the season, but now they’re back in the conversation.

According to sportsclubstats.com, the Islanders have a 27.8% chance to make the playoffs and you can expect for that number to increase if they continue their hot streak. This Islanders team will be interesting to watch as the season rolls on but expect for them to be competing heavily with the Hurricanes down the stretch.


Carolina Hurricanes

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

So, after all that how are the Hurricanes’ playoffs chances looking? Coming off of a five-game losing streak headed into the All-Star break, the team has rebounded in an impressive way. They won three straight games last week, and critically, two of those were against competing teams we’ve touched on in this article.

The Hurricanes have 55 points through 51 games played and sit four points behind the Flyers in the WC2 spot with 2 games in hand. While this is a good place to be, we’ve been here before and the Hurricanes squandered their good position with a losing streak. The team has shown that it has what it takes to win but they desperately need to show some some consistency.

A recipe for long term success has to involve less of a workload on Cam Ward as he’s played 44 of the 51 games up to this point. That kind of work is too much for any backstop, but especially someone as injury prone as Cam. With Eddie Lack back in the lineup expect to see him utilized more as he tries to kickstart his season.

There are a lot of teams that have what it takes to clinch a playoff spot; the Hurricanes will need to distinguish themselves with a long stretch of good play. Sportsclubstats.com gives Carolina just a 31% chance to make the playoffs.

Can the team do this? That’s a good question. They’ve shown that they have what it takes to win, but they really cannot afford to lose focus and drop multiple games in a row again. Another extended losing streak would essentially ruin their playoff hopes this season. The Hurricanes will be in Washington on Tuesday then in Dallas on Saturday night. Watch carefully, because at this point every game is the biggest game of the season.