RALEIGH — Following Tuesday’s game in Toronto, the Carolina Hurricanes will have two dates remaining in the 2018-19 regular season schedule. The looming question is whether there will a postseason for the Hurricanes for the first time since 2009.
Entering the Maple Leafs game, Carolina is in the second wild-card spot with 93 points — one behind Columbus for the first wild-card spot and one more than Montreal, which is currently on the wrong side of the playoff cutline.
The Blue Jackets have jumped back into a playoff spot with five straight wins, while Carolina has stumbled of late against playoff competition. The Hurricanes lost both games of a home-and-home last week with the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals. They rebounded with a 5-2 home win over the Flyers but seemed out of sorts in a 3-1 loss in Pittsburgh on Sunday.
What will take for Carolina to finally return to the playoffs? Here are the keys to ending the Hurricanes’ playoff dry spell.
Beat teams you’re supposed to beat
After Tuesday’s game in Toronto, the Hurricanes close out their home schedule with the Eastern Conference’s second-worst team, New Jersey, and then travel to Philadelphia to play another team with little for which to play.
Carolina is just 1-2 this year against the Devils, but gone is goaltender Keith Kinkaid — a frequent tormenter of the Hurricanes — and New Jersey is just 5-9-2 since March 1 after a 4-2 win against the equally hapless Rangers on Monday. In fact, the Devils haven’t beaten a team currently in a playoff spot since a 4-2 win over Carolina on Feb. 10.
The Flyers have been struggling as much as anyone not from Buffalo, going 3-7-0 in their last 10 games. Entering its game in Dallas on Tuesday, Philadelphia had allowed at least three goals in its previous five games. Since March 1, the Flyers have given up 49 goals in 15 games (3.27 goals allowed per game), which is actually an improvement of the 3.33 goals-against average that ties them with New Jersey for fourth worst in the NHL.
While the Hurricanes haven’t won in March at the pace they did in January and February, they have continued to do one thing extremely well: win games they’re expected to win. It’s been nearly a month and a half since Carolina lost a game to an also-ran (a 2-1 loss on Feb. 19 to the Rangers) — the rest of the Hurricanes’ defeats have been against teams in a playoff spot.
If they win the games they should, the Hurricanes will get in.
Tough road for the Habs
Why? Because Montreal’s remaining schedule is a bear. No, not the Bruins — though that would fit in with who the Canadiens have remaining on their schedule. Montreal plays at home against the league’s best team, Tampa Bay, on Tuesday, then plays at the defending Stanley Cup champions, Washington, on Thursday.
The Canadiens close out their regular season at home — and you can bet Original 6 rival Toronto won’t take it easy on the Habs if a playoff spot is on the line.
Montreal is a combined 1-4-3 against those teams this season. Two wins by Carolina and one loss from the Canadiens and the Hurricanes clinch a spot.
Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour is fond of saying his team’s best players need to be their best players.
Recently, Sebastian Aho hasn’t been.
It’s been a breakthrough season for Aho, who is already assured of being a point-per-game player since he’s totaled 82 points. But Aho’s been church-mouse-quiet since March 8, registering five assists and no goals. He’s still generating chances — he’s had three shots on goal in five of his last six games — but the Hurricanes need him to rediscover the back of the net.
This is Aho’s third double-digit goal drought of the season, and the previous one wasn’t all that long ago — a 10-game goal desert from Feb. 5-23. He followed that with six goals in six games before going back into hiding with this 11-game slide.
Carolina needs Aho to find a way to be one of its best players this week.
The Hurricanes have gotten this far because both of their goalies, Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, have combined to make up the equivalent of a solid No. 1 starter. That said, it might be hard for Brind’Amour and goalie coach Mike Bales to not lean on Mrazek in the final week.
The games are perfectly spaced out — there’s one day off in between each game — and Mrazek has been lights out since the calendar flipped to 2019. The Czech goalie is 15-6-1 the past three months and even better in February and March: 11-4 with a .938 save percentage and 1.87 goals-against average.
McElhinney had a stellar February, but he’s now just 3-4-1 in March and could be showing the wear and tear of having played a career-high 1,918 NHL minutes this season at age 35.
The platoon has worked all season, but Carolina might need to roll the dice with Mrazek to give itself the best chance to end its run of early April tee times.