Hurricanes try to keep unthinkable run toward playoffs alive

Carolina, on an 11-game point streak with eight remaining, chasing three teams for one postseason spot

James Guillory—USA TODAY Sports
Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner scored for the sixth-straight game Monday in Carolina's 4-3 overtime loss to Detroit at PNC Arena.

RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes’ 3-1 over the Minnesota Wild on March 16 was a triumph over returning former captain Eric Staal. Despite the result, the two sides in the broken relationship were clearly headed in opposite directions — Staal to the postseason, Carolina to an eight-straight year on the outside looking in.So beating Staal and the Wild was seemingly about pride and little else. But 30-year-old Derek Ryan — the forward whose perseverance in making the NHL outweighs his then-59 games of experience in the world’s best hockey league — thought otherwise.”I don’t know if we don’t have anything to play for,” Ryan said. “Obviously we’re not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and I think that any time you’re playing in the NHL you have a lot to play for. I think we’re just trying to keep that mindset and also the mindset that you never know.”The victory over Minnesota marked the fourth straight game Carolina had registered a point in the standings, having won two and lost two in overtime after a tough-to-swallow road loss to the NHL-worst Avalanche on March 7.It’s unlikely Ryan thought Carolina would extend that point streak to 11 games heading into the Tuesday’s second of two straight home games against the Detroit Red Wings, but that’s what happened when Justin Faulk scored a game-tying goal with 52 seconds remaining and goaltender Eddie Lack on the bench for an extra attacker Monday at PNC Arena.The game ended on a down note, both because the Red Wings won in overtime and their goal scorer, Andreas Athanasiou, collided with Lack on the play, resulting in the Carolina goalie — 5-1-2 in March with a .921 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average — being stretchered off the ice as both teams watched with concern.Lack was taken by ambulance Monday night to UNC REX Hospital in Raleigh and later released after scans were negative, the team said. He was diagnosed with a neck strain, leading to the team recvalling first-year pro Alex Nedeljkovic from Florida of the ECHL.As for Carolina’s new-found playoff hopes, they were still alive heading into the rematch with Detroit Tuesday night. With eight games remaining, the Hurricanes (80 points) trailed the Boston Bruins by four points. Also standing in their way are the Tampa Bay Lightning (83) and New York Islanders (82). Carolina has one game in hand on all three teams.On top of Lack’s spectacular goaltending this month, the Hurricanes have been boosted by the play of Jeff Skinner. Skinner’s first-period goal Monday, his 31st of the season, marked the sixth-straight game in which the can’t-believe-he’s-only-24-year-old veteran has scored. The month of March, like Lack’s, has been Skinner’s best of the season withv 11 goals and four assists in 14 games. All 11 goals have come at even strength.Throw in positive contributions up and down the lineup — most notably from Elias Lindholm, Sebastian Aho and a solidified defense — and the Hurricanes are the team no one wants to play right now.The balance of the schedule doesn’t favor Carolina, but it doesn’t hurt them either. Boston gets to close the season with six of seven at home, while the Hurricanes have the second-best home-to-road ratio with five of eight at PNC Arena.The Islanders have the easiest remaining schedule with just two of their final seven opponents currently in playoff position. But just two of their games are at Barclays Center, and they will play April 6 in Raleigh in what could be a pivotal game.The goaltending platoon that has worked well in March will now swing solely to Cam Ward, the only player on the roster who was in Raleigh the last time Carolina made the postseason. Given Nedeljkovic’s inexperience — he stopped all 17 shots he faced in 30 minutes of relief duty on Jan. 17 in Columbus, his only NHL appearance — coach Bill Peters will have to rely on Ward (3-1-3 in March heading into Tuesday’s game, but with just a .900 save percentage and bloated 3.27 goals-against average) to keep the Hurricanes’ flickering postseason hopes alive.The Hurricanes still have only an outside chance, but like Ryan said less than two weeks ago: “If we really string together some wins here, you never know what can happen.”