For the Hurricanes, Saturday’s overtime loss to Buffalo was painful. New York’s dramatic comeback victory over the favored Bruins Monday is absolutely devastating.
With the Rangers’ victory, Carolina now finds itself three points behind eighth-place Buffalo.
Less than a week ago, Carolina’s playoff chances were trending up. New York had gone ice-cold offensively, and the Sabres were without their number one goaltender, left to lean on a rookie who had shouldered no great responsibility at any point this season.
Things haven’t panned out the way Carolina might have hoped. Despite the absence of star netminder Ryan Miller, the Sabres have played well in front of youngster Jhonas Enroth, who has backed the Sabres to points in each of his three recent starts (2-0-1).
New York has now won two straight against division leaders, beating Philadelphia in a Sunday-matinee shootout and scoring five unanswered against Boston Monday.
Carolina had done its best to stay alive, winning three straight games prior to Saturday’s shootout loss to Buffalo. The Sabres took the overtime victory off a fluky goal by Marc-Andre Gragnani, a heartbreaker for Canes fans and a two-point swing in the wrong direction.
Gathering seven out of a possible eight points, the Hurricanes have kept themselves above water, three points shy of Buffalo for the final playoff seed.
With the door almost closed on the regular season, the Hurricanes can only make the second season with some help.
Carolina (38-30-11, 87 points) sits 9th in East with 3 games remaining. For the Canes, the formula is simple – win out. There is no way the club can reasonably expect to make the dance if they drop any of their remaining three contests.
At 87 points, a final three-game sweep would put the Canes at 93 points. If the three teams above them lose out, Carolina can conceivably finish in sixth place.
More likely, however, they can look only to finish in seventh or eighth. The Montreal Canadiens sit in sixth with 91 points and three games remaining. New York is tied at 91 points, but has one fewer game remaining than the surrounding teams. Buffalo, like Carolina, has three games left to play.
Wednesday’s match with the Detroit Red Wings is the season for Carolina. Fall, and the Canes can at best finish with 91 points, good enough only to take over eighth place assuming Buffalo loses each of its final three games in regulation.
Detroit seems to be back in the swing of things after turning in a sour performance against St. Louis. Weekend wins over Nashville and Minnesota clinched the Central Division title for the Wings, their ninth division victory in the last decade. The Hurricanes get Detroit in Raleigh, where fans have created a playoff atmosphere of late.
Following Detroit, Carolina plays at Atlanta and at home against Tampa Bay. The Hurricanes have posted points in each of their fives games with the Thrashers this season (5-0-1). Carolina is 2-2-1 against the Bolts this year, dropping their last match 4-2. Tampa Bay is one of the hottest teams in hockey. Winners of five straight, they have pulled within a point of Pittsburgh for the final home-ice seed.
Montreal (42-30-7, 91 points), in sixth place, is very nearly a lock to make the playoffs. A single win will put them at 93 points, the highest-possible point total Carolina can reach. With six more regulation/overtime wins than the Canes, Montreal can clinch a playoff spot by going 0-2-1 in its final three contests (Chicago, at Ottawa, at Toronto).
The Rangers (43-32-5, 91 points) also lead the Hurricanes by four points. One more victory will put them at 93 points, Carolina’s ceiling. The Hurricanes have a game in hand on New York, and can potentially finish with the same number of ROW wins. New York plays two non-playoff teams to end the season, Atlanta and New Jersey, and both inside Madison Square Garden. The Rangers can clinch a playoff spot with three points in their last two contests.
The race with Buffalo began shaping up weeks ago, and the final postseason berth will likely come down to these clubs. Buffalo (40-29-10, 90 points) is in better shape as of Tuesday, leading the Canes by three points and with two ROW victories in hand.
With games remaining against Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Columbus, Buffalo is no sure thing to finish in the top eight. The Sabres are 1-2-0 against Tampa Bay. Though the last game ended in a 7-4 victory, few teams in hockey are playing as well as Tampa.
Philadelphia is still leading the East, if only by a thread. Like the Lightning, Buffalo trails the season series two games to one, having been outscored 11-5 in those two losses. While Philadelphia has spent the last two months limping along, the points will still be tough for Buffalo to gather.
Out of the playoff picture for a second straight year, lowly Columbus can probably see no better sendoff to a forgettable season than to help spoil the playoff hopes of another club. The teams meet April 9 in Columbus.
Buffalo is in a good spot with a three-point cushion, but two tough matches loom large on the schedule. There’s no date set for Ryan Miller’s return, despite a light skating session Monday. Buffalo’s magic number is two – two victories in three games will put them at 94 points, a guaranteed invitation, and the end of the Hurricanes playoff pursuit.
Carolina’s postseason status has yet to be decided, but for the next week, each contest will be a veritable Game 7.