Carolina entered last weekend facing a home-and-home with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the very real prospect of falling out of the playoff race. Carolina took the first meeting, 4-3, in Tampa. Saturday, the Lightning dropped the Hurricanes 4-2 in their own barn. Not good.
With seven games remaining and only one playoff spot realistically up for grabs, the Hurricanes will have to lean on help from the teams above them. That help will likely only come into play if Carolina wins out.
Really not good.
The Hurricanes are in a one-on-one with the Buffalo Sabres for the final spot in the East. Buffalo (38-28-9, 85 points) occupies the final playoff spot with 85 points in 75 games. Carolina (35-30-10, 80 points) trails by five. Both teams have seven games remaining.
The Sabres are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games, good for a .600 winning percentage excluding the bonus point. Since January 1, the Sabres have gone 24-10-5, compiling a .705 winning percentage while playing better than .500 hockey in each of the last three months. They are 3-0-0 over their last three contests, including two shutouts.
To talk about catching Buffalo, the Canes must first handle their own business. Therein lies the necessary miracle. Carolina’s remaining games:
@ Washington Capitals (44-22-10, 98 points)
vs Montreal Canadiens (40-29-7, 87 points)
@ New York Islanders (29-35-12, 70 points)
vs Buffalo Sabres (38-28-9, 85 points)
vs Detroit Red Wings (44-22-9, 97 points)
@ Atlanta Thrashers (32-31-12, 76 points)
vs Tampa Bay Lightning (40-24-11, 91 points)
Of the remaining seven games, only two come against non-playoff teams (Atlanta and NY Islanders). Three division games remain with matches against Atlanta, Washington and Tampa Bay. Two games come against division leaders (Washington and Detroit), while Montreal, Buffalo and Tampa occupy the 6th, 8th and 5th seeds in the East, respectively.
Carolina’s record against those clubs this season is 11-10-3.
The playoffs rest most squarely on the contests against Washington and Buffalo. Carolina and Washington square off for the sixth and final time Tuesday in Washington. The Capitals have won eight of ten and are 4-0-1 against Carolina this season, outscoring Carolina 13-8 in those games. If the Canes drop the match with Washington and Buffalo beats Toronto, they will fall 9 points back with 6 games remaining, just about enough to quash any real hope at making the dance.
The April 3 contest against Buffalo represents a potential four-point swing. Even if the Canes pull close by that date, the loss would mean four points in the wrong direction with only three games to make up the difference. Carolina is 2-1-0 against the Sabres this season.
The Canadiens (and for that matter, the New York Rangers) are technically within reach at 87 points, though ROW tiebreakers make those scenarios even less conceivable. While the Canadiens haven’t found the back of the net since St. Patrick’s Day, they are 3-0-0 against the Hurricanes in 2010-11, scoring 14 times in just three games.
Each contest pulls the playoff window a little further closed. For the Hurricanes, catching up to Buffalo and avoiding a second-straight year without the postseason begins with a Tuesday victory over the red-hot Capitals.
Alex Ovechkin, Jason Arnott and Mike Green are all set to make their returns to the lineup sometime this week, potentially as early as Tuesday’s contest with the Canes.