RALEIGH — To say the next eight days will be pivotal to the Carolina Hurricanes’ playoff hopes will be an understatement.
The team’s six-game road trip officially began Saturday in Montreal — a 4-3 overtime loss in which Carolina stole a point with a tying goal by Justin Williams late in regulation with their goalie pulled for an extra attacker — but with no game for four days, it truly begins in earnest Thursday in Philadelphia with the team away from Raleigh for five road days in eight days.
“You’ve just got to bank points, get points, get wins, especially this time of year,” Williams said following Monday’s practice in Raleigh.
Four of the five games come against Metropolitan Division foes, and the first three are against teams battling the Hurricanes for one the five playoff spots available to teams in the division: the Flyers, Islanders (Saturday on Long Island) and Penguins (Sunday).
Needless to say, it’s make-or-break time for Carolina, which is 35-24-5 for 75 points through 64 games and was three points behind Columbus for the second wild card spot heading into Tuesday night’s games.
“I came back to compete and play in fun hockey games and battle for a Stanley Cup,” Williams said. “So yeah, these last 19 games are what I came back for. I’m ready for it.”
The easiest way to tighten a grip on a playoff spot is to beat teams head-to-head in four-point swing games. The red-hot Flyers (83 points in 65 games) and struggling Penguins (82 points in 65 games) have built a cushion and currently sit second and third in the Metro, behind 86-point Washington.
The Islanders, meanwhile, have 78 points through 65 games and are just 2-6-2 in their last 10 games after Tuesday’s home loss (this one was at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center) to Montreal.
But those recent struggles aren’t new for the Islanders. Since they’re 16-3-1 start to open the season, New York is just 19-19-7 since and only has wins over bottom-feeders Detroit and San Jose in the past 10 games.
Columbus, meanwhile, rallied for an inspiring home win Sunday over Vancouver, but the Blue Jackets are just 2-5-5 in their last 12 and struggling with a sickbay of injuries that makes Carolina’s wounded look like a regular afternoon at the school nurse.
That doesn’t mean the Hurricanes don’t have plenty to overcome.
Two of the team’s top three defensemen — Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce — are out, and Carolina is hoping injured trade deadline acquisition Sami Vatanen can join fellow newcomer Brady Skjei in bringing stability to the blue line.
There’s also the situation in net, as both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer are out with injuries. That may have led to the amazing David Ayres story, but it didn’t do any favors to the Hurricanes’ playoffs hopes.
AHL call-ups Alex Nedeljkovic and Anton Forsberg will likely have to man the net throughout the road trip after general manager Don Waddell told media at this week’s GM meetings that Mrazek was still 7-10 days away from returning from a concussion suffered Feb. 22 when Toronto’s Kyle Clifford collided with him and knocked him out of the game.
Neither Nedeljkovic nor Forsberg has earned a win yet in the three games since both usual goalies went down, but both played well enough in stretches to give a glimmer of hope that Carolina can bank points with them in net.
While regulation losses to any of Philadelphia, the Islanders or Pittsburgh would deal a blow to the Hurricanes’ postseason aspirations, the games in Detroit (March 10) and New Jersey (March 12) are must-wins.
The Red Wings have won just three times since Jan. 12 and have only five victories all season against teams in a playoff spot heading into Tuesday’s games. including just one since they beat Vegas on Nov. 10 (3-1 home win over Boston on Feb. 9).
The Devils, however, are playing loose and with nothing to lose since the team sold off several players — including Vatanen, Taylor Hall and Wayne Simmonds — as they try and kick their rebuild into top gear.
Before Tuesday’s loss in Vegas, New Jersey had gotten points in six straight (4-0-2) and has lost in regulation just three times in its last 17 games (9-3-5).
Regardless of the opponent, the Hurricanes know they need to make their push now or risk missing the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“You can group all of them into the same category for me. We gotta have them,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said Monday. “Whether they’re on the road, whether they’re divisional, whether they’re who you’re playing against — it kind of all goes out the window.
“We’re at the point where you’ve got to have them.”