The Hurricanes dropped a 5-2 decision to Chicago Friday night after winning two straight games. With the Rangers win over Minnesota that night, Carolina dropped back to the final playoff spot in the East.
Justin Peters recorded the loss for Carolina. It was the first time in 24 games Cam Ward did not get the start.
Following Friday’s loss, the Hurricanes have a five-day layoff until their next contest, Wednesday at home against Atlanta. In that time, the two teams trailing them most closely will have the chance to pass them in the standings. Buffalo trails the Hurricanes by one point after beating Philadelphia 5-3 on Saturday, and will play two more games before next Wednesday.
Toronto, in 10th place and four points behind Carolina, plays twice before Wednesday.
The time off should be welcomed. Ward’s 24-game stretch of consecutive starts began with a December 23 game against Montreal, two and a half months ago.
The break will also give head coach Paul Maurice more practice time to help work newly acquired players into the lineup.
The layoff will be Carolina’s longest such break for the rest of the regular season. As with all teams fighting for the final playoff spots, points will be at a premium. With the possibility that their closest opponents may pull ahead of them between now and Wednesday, Carolina’s next five games will be as important as any left on the schedule.
The five-game run includes a pair of back-to-back meetings. Carolina is 11-1-1 in the first of back-to-back games this year, but just 7-7-0 in the second half of those sets.
Carolina’s first game back is Wednesday, March 9 against division opponent Atlanta (26-28-11, 63 points). The Thrashers have fallen to 11th place after holding a playoff spot for much of the first half of the season. Since January, the Thrashers are 5-13-5 in 23 games played. Atlanta trails Carolina by eight points for the final playoff spot.
Atlanta’s struggles have come most notably on defense. The strong play of Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom was interrupted by Enstrom’s broken finger, and goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has fallen off after a stretch of play that saw him in the top-five in the league in goals against average and save percentage. The Thrashers are 27th in the NHL in goals against (3.1 per game) and 28th in penalty kill percentage (77.4). Atlanta also allows 33.3 shots per game, second only to Carolina’s 33.6 shots per game.
Carolina is 4-0-0 against Atlanta this season, outscoring the Thrashers 14-10. Each games has been decided by one goal, and three of the four have gone into overtime or a shootout. The Hurricanes’ last game against the Thrashers comes April 8 in Atlanta.
The Hurricanes play the Washington Capitals (35-20-10, 80 points) the following Friday. As of Saturday, Washington was 5th in the East and closing in on Tampa Bay for the Southeast lead. The Capitals are 6-4-0 over their last 10 games and rank in the top ten of the NHL in goals against (2.4 per game) and penalty kill percentage (85.5 percent).
Washington, surprisingly, has struggled offensively. The Capitals rank in the bottom third of the league in goals per game (2.6) and power play percentage (16.1) after leading the league in both categories a season ago.
The Hurricanes haven’t fared as well against the Capitals as they have against Atlanta. Carolina is 0-3-1 against the Caps this season, each game ending in a 3-2 score with one game reaching a shootout. The last meeting between the division rivals takes place March 29 in Washington.
Carolina gets Columbus (31-36-7, 69 points) at home on the second half of the back-to-back on March 30. It will be the first and only time the teams will meet this season.
Columbus has lost four straight as of Saturday afternoon. At six points back in the hyper-competitive West, they seem set to miss the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
Carolina is 9-5-2 against Western Conference opponents this season.
The five-game stretch finishes out with games against Northeast Division opponents who are currently 9th and 10th behind Carolina in the East. Games at Buffalo and at home against Toronto will be especially crucial, given the standings at the time. These contests represent potential four-point swings. Regulation wins for the Canes would help to keep them from making up ground, in addition to the two points for victory.
Buffalo (31-25-8, 70 points) and Carolina most recently played Thursday in western New York, where the Hurricanes gutted out a 3-2 overtime win despite being outplayed for long stretches during the contest. Carolina lost their previous match to Buffalo on January 13, 3-2.
The Sabres have come on strong since January, posting a 16-7-4 record in 2011, and have points in seven of their last 10 games (5-3-2). The Sabres’ home mark this season is a sour 14-15-3.
Buffalo currently trails Carolina by one point and has two games in hand.
Toronto (29-27-9, 67 points), also strong of late, plays Carolina March 16 in Raleigh. The Maple Leafs have gone 6-1-3 over their last 10 games and have points in 14 of their last 16 games (10-2-4).
Carolina is 2-1-0 against Toronto this season, both clubs having scored 10 goals in the season series. Toronto has a game in hand on Carolina as of Saturday afternoon.