RALEIGH — The good news for the Carolina Hurricanes is that none of the five Metropolitan Division teams battling for the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference seem to want to seize control of the opportunity.
The bad news is the Hurricanes have been one of them, too.
Carolina’s eight-game home stand was supposed to be the team’s big chance to make a move and force its way into playoff position. Instead, the Hurricanes were 2-2 halfway through their residency at PNC Arena heading into Tuesday’s game against the Flyers, a 2-1 overtime loss.
After starting the stretch with wins over Ottawa and Montreal, Carolina stumbled against Detroit, and then laid an egg so big in a Sunday matinee against the Sharks that coach Bill Peters challenged his team following the game and again Monday afternoon with a rigorous practice.
“I would be desperate,” Peters said after Monday’s skate. “There’s a lot of different reasons to be desperate, but I would find a way to be a desperate hockey player. There’s different reasons for different guys at different stages of their career, OK? But it’s also, for our team, it’s time to be desperate and put our best foot forward.”
The Eastern Conference playoff picture can best be described as a cluster. The top three teams in both the Atlantic and Metro have cracked the 60-point barrier, and the struggles of the five Atlantic teams not named Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto have the East’s other division in position to plan for five playoff teams.
Washington (65 points), New Jersey (62) and Pittsburgh (61) held the top three spots following Monday’s games. From there, the other five teams in the hunt for two wild card slots were within three points of each other heading into Tuesday — and all had skated off the ice as losers in at least half of their last 10 games.
Columbus has been stricken by injury and inconsistency with 58 points through 52 games. The Islanders blew a late lead Monday to Nashville and then lost in overtime, giving away a point and were also at 58, though with two more games played than the Blue Jackets.
Philadelphia (57) and Carolina (56) entered Tuesday’s head-to-head, well, neck and neck.
And the Rangers’ 2-1 loss in Dallas on Monday kept them at 55 points with questions of whether it was time to sell off assets like Rick Nash ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
In the past four seasons, the final spot in the Eastern Conference has gone to a team with 95, 96, 98 and 93 points — an average of 95.5 points.
Even though the current pace for the final spot is right around 90, it’s fair to say the second wild card will need 96 points. That means the Hurricanes need 40 points in their final 29 games, an average of 1.38 points per game. That could be 20-9-0, 17-6-6, or 14-0-12 — the point is, they need to get to 40.
Entering the Flyers game, only 14 of Carolina’s final 29 games come against current playoff teams. Also on the slate in 14 of 29 games? Metro opponents.
So the opportunity is there for the Hurricanes to not only feast on nonplayoff teams (they were 11-6-3 through 53 games against teams not in the postseason picture as of Tuesday morning, including winning seven of their last eight against those teams), but also make up ground — or provide a cushion — quickly with wins over division foes that are in the race with them.
Against the Metro this season, Carolina was 6-5-3 entering Tuesday’s first game of the season against Philadelphia. The teams will play each other a total of four times this season, as will the yet-to-play-each-other Devils and Hurricanes. Those teams will meet Feb. 15 in Newark for the first of three games in 16 days, then one final time on March 27.
“So what are we? That’s the question I would ask,” Peters said Monday. “What are we? You’ve seen us play well. You’ve seen individuals play well. You’ve seen us play well collectively for stretches.
“You’ve seen us play to an identity last year on a consistent basis. I don’t think this team’s got to an identity that they’re proud of on a consistent basis this year yet. And that’s what we have to do over the next 29 games.”