How cool is it that the Carolina Hurricanes are still playing hockey games that matter in the middle of March?
By this time last season, we were already many weeks into looking forward to summer and the draft and the building of next year’s team.
After a steady and powerful surge from the end of December through the all-star break at the end of January, the Canes have mostly treaded water and barely avoided drowning along the way. The second wind from the break let to a strong start in early February, but the team gave it all back in the 3-game skid heading into the trade deadline. It seemed logical that the losing streak and also the loss of players to trade would have spelled the beginning of a quick and precipitous slide right out of the 2015-16 season. Instead the Canes are 3-0-2 in the 5 games since the trade deadline.
But with other teams winning too, the Canes have lost a bit of ground lately and find themselves 5 points below the cut line which is about where they were 6 weeks ago. And with only 12 games remaining, it probably takes a string of minor miracles for the Canes to push up at this point.
So what would the required set of miracles be?
1-An improbable close to the current road trip. If you break down the Canes remaining 13 games in 4 3-game sets (obviously with 1 left over), the current set of 3 is easily the toughest. All 3 games are on the road and the set features a game against the NHL’s best in Washington followed by games against 2 current playoff teams who are on the edge and desperately need the points. Normally, one would gladly take a 1-1-1 mark for a set like this, but that just is not enough right now. The Canes need a minor miracle to collect at least 4 if not more points in the next 3 games.
Nothing will be easy especially considering the percentage of games that the Canes would need to win down the stretch, but after the upcoming 3-game road stretch, the schedule lightens just a little. 6 of the Canes last 10 are at home after playing 7 of the first 8 games in March on the road. The only back-to-back set is on Easter weekend and both are home games with no travel required the night before. And of the last 10 opponents, 5 are non-playoff teams.
Shorter version: The next 3 games are tough, but if the Canes can do well in those, the remaining schedule is a little bit easier.
2-Very few 3-point games in head-to-head games for teams above. The remaining schedule for the teams that the Canes are chasing are actually favorable for the Hurricanes. The remaining schedule features 3 Penguins/Flyers match ups, 1 Penguins/Red Wings match up and 2 Red Wings/Flyers match ups. Obviously, 1 of the 2 teams must lose each of those games. But the key in today’s NHL is that these be regulation losses not 3-point games that see the loser also pick up a point.
Short version: The teams that the Canes are chasing stand to lose points battling each other as long as too many 3-point games do not mess up the math.
3-Some combination of players needs to get REALLY hot. My rough math had the bottom slot sitting at 94 or 95 points. Right now, that number looks a little bit low even. To even get to 94 points, the Canes would need to go 10-3 down the stretch. I do not see that happening from hanging in games and trying to find a way on a nightly basis. It is going to take some combination of players hitting another torrid hot streak down the stretch. Can Jordan Staal re-find his higher gear even minus Andrej Nestrasil? Could Cam Ward or Eddie Lack find a stretch of 8-9 games where he is unbeatable? Does Jeff Skinner have 1 more huge scoring burst left in him? Could Justin Faulk return just in time to provide a big boost?
Short version: For what the Canes need to do, it will be really hard to play decent hockey and scratch and claw for enough points. Some combination of players needs to help the team find a higher gear down the stretch.
As the cliche goes, it is important to take things 1 game at a time. A win in Washington on Tuesday would be only a single step forward but arguably a required 1 and the first of multiple mini miracles needed at this point.
Regardless of how it all ends, the fact that even dreaming and calculating is even possible on March 15 is a gift from the hockey gods.