After another busy four-game week, the Carolina Hurricanes suddenly have only nine games remaining in the regular season. Though the team has not officially clinched a playoff berth, post-season play is certain enough that I do not feel like I could be jinxing the situation by counting on playoffs for mid-May.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe builds a checklist for the remainder of the regular season.
1) Officially clinch the playoff spot
With an overtime loss or better for the Hurricanes on Monday or an overtime loss or worse for the Predators, the Carolina Hurricanes will officially clinch a playoff spot. In the name of being thorough, that is still technically on the to-do list.
2) Win the division
With Dallas surging right now and Nashville also playing better of late, it is questionable how much of an advantage the top seed provides in terms of first-round match up. Are the Stars rounding into form just like the team did for the 2020 NHL Playoffs? Is a match up against the Predators just a trap after the Canes beat them six times so far during the regular season? While acknowledging that playing the #4 seed does not assure anything, I do think it is still the better path. And having home ice advantage for two rounds of the divisional playoffs definitely has value.
Entering play on Monday, the Hurricanes have a one-point lead over Florida with two games in hand and a two-point lead over Tampa Bay with one game in hand. The Hurricanes are likely to lose the tiebreaker to either team, so it is necessary to finish ahead of the competitors, not just tied. The Hurricanes are clearly in the driver’s seat, but a quick two or three game slide could see that evaporate quickly.
3) Get Ned to 27 games, so he stays restricted free agent
The one blessing with Mrazek’s injury is that it cleared the path for Alex Nedeljkovic to play more down the stretch and reach the 27 games required, so he does not become a Group 6 unrestricted free agent. Having played three straight since Mrazek’s injury, Nedeljkovic needs to play 30 minutes or more in just three of the Hurricanes remaining nine games. Best bet is that he plays one but not both of the Monday/Tuesday back-to-back which would leave him needing to play only two of the final seven games.
4) Get Petr Mrazek back in the lineup and in a rhythm
With his second layoff of the season that has seen Petr Mrazek play very well but start only nine of the Canes 47 games thus far. After his first layoff, he hit the ground running when he returned, but best would be to get Mrazek two to four starts at the end of the regular season heading into the playoffs just to make sure he is ready to go.
5) Get the skaters healthy and back in a rhythm
The Hurricanes have been beset by injuries of late. Jesper Fast was the latest added to a list that already included Teuvo Teravainen, Brock McGinn, Brady Skjei and Jordan Martinook (in addition to Petr Mrazek mentioned above). Most significant would be to get Teravainen back into the lineup, so he has time to shake off any rust and get past any self doubts after returning from a long concussion layoff. Brady Skjei is also very important. The team is not as good or as deep with any of the third pairing defensemen bumped up into the top four. As I said on Twitter after Saturday’s game, I think ideal would be the have a full roster for the last 4-6 games of the regular season, so the team can re-find a rhythm and Brind’Amour can figure out how to put the forward line puzzle pieces together for the playoffs. Lost in the success in terms of collecting points is that the Hurricanes level of play had a lot of ‘meh’ or worse in it over the four games in Florida. Now is the time of year to tighten things up, not get looser. That will be hard to do if too many players are on the shelf and the lineup and lines are makeshift down the stretch.
6) Possibly set a tone in the last week
The uniqueness of the 2020-21 season sets up an interesting possibility to play the first-round playoff opponent multiple times right before the playoffs start. That will not be the case if the Stars win the fourth playoff spot, but the Hurricanes finish the season with three games against the Blackhawks and then two games against the Predators. If one of those teams wins the final playoff spot, those games could make a point heading into the playoffs. Especially if the Hurricanes meet the Predators in the first round of the playoffs, the final two games of the regular season against them could be significant. By beating them twice more, the Hurricanes could at least attempt to squelch any hope or optimism they have entering the playoffs. Especially if the Predators can clinch early, a game with no real significance right before a playoff match up could be really interesting in terms of starting the physical battle a game or two early.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Is there anything else that you add to a regular season to-do list?
2) How significant do you think winning the division is in terms of getting a theoretically favorable first-round match up and also home ice at least for the two divisional playoff series?
3) How concerned are you about getting the full lineup back and finding a new rhythm before the playoffs start?