With their win over the the NHL-leading Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, the Hurricanes pulled to within 3 points of the eighth place Philadelphia Flyers and the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference at exactly 41-game midway point in the Hurricanes’ season.
In my Raleigh snow day polls from Saturday, optimism was pretty low for a Hurricanes’ playoff berth. As someone pointed out via email, there is probably a significant recency bias for a poll like this coming the day after a loss versus the day after a win. And with 2 wins since that poll started, certainly the Canes’ prospects have improved to some degree.
A popular topic
I have written about the “playoff” topic in a variety of forms already:
On December 13, I wrote an article entitled “What does it take for the Carolina Hurricanes to make the playoffs?” As of today, I stand by that assessment.
On January 3 to start off the new year right, I went full optimism mode and wrote “10 reasons why the Carolina Hurricanes will make the playoffs.”
Handicapping the competition
When I break down the competition, the 16 teams in the Eastern Conference break into a couple categories.
Already in and not to be concerned with in the Metropolitan Division (4): I put all of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals pretty solidly in the playoffs. All of those teams are 15+ games above .500 compared to 4 for the Hurricanes. If the Hurricanes catch anyone from this pack, it likely means that the Hurricanes surged and area in the playoffs.
3 required from the Atlantic Division (3): It might not be fair this year, but because each division automatically gets 3 teams in the playoffs, there will be 3 more teams in the playoffs ahead of the Hurricanes. I think the only 1 that is a sure thing right now is the Montreal Canadiens who like the Metropolitan Division leaders is 15 games above .500. Right now, the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators would be the other 2 teams, but I think that is subject to change.
The thing that jumps out quickly from that math is that 7 of the 8 playoff spots in the Eastern Conference are already taken leaving on 1 remaining spot. That in itself suggests that making the playoffs will be challenging. Taking a look at who else the Hurricanes need to beat out also makes the task look tough.
Steps to win the 1 remaining spot
As things stand right now, it is like this:
1) Catch the Flyers for #5 in the Metro: The Hurricanes need to finish fifth in the Metropolitan Division which means moving up from sixth and catching the Philadelphia Flyers. That is doable. The Flyers who have been sputtering of late are up only 3 points on the Hurricanes, and the good guys have 2 games in hand that could be worth up to 4 points.
2) Beat all but the best 2 from the other 7 in the Atlantic: After awarding a slot to Montreal, the other 7 teams in the Atlantic Division are a jumbled mess. Detroit is the only team in the entire Eastern Conference under .500 but only by 1 game.
3) Stay ahead of the lower teams in the Metro: The Hurricanes also need to stay ahead of the Devils and the Islanders obviously. Those teams seem like they are out of it are really not that far back if they could put together a winning streak.
At the most basic level, the Hurricanes need to go head to head with the Flyers and beat them to have any chance. If they do that, then it is a matter of beating all but 2 (plus the Canadiens) of the teams in the Atlantic. Right now, that seems doable, but I worry a bit about a couple teams who are sputtering but might have higher gear if they can put things together.
Gauging the competition
Tampa Bay: Right now, they are behind the Hurricanes. Are they just in for a down year, or are they an elite team that will put it all together and then surge ahead suddenly?
Florida: Somewhat like Tampa Bay, Florida is a team underperforming relative to expectations but seemingly with upside if they put it all together.
Toronto: The Leafs are the Hurricanes of the Atlantic Divsision theroretically supposed to be a year or 2 away but very much in the playoff chase. As measured by games above .500, the Maple Leafs are now tied with the Flyers for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Boston and Ottawa: In theory, both are teams that the Hurricanes do not need to worry about because they are in the Atlantic playoff spots, but because I worry that Tampa or Florida could rise, I continue to hope Boston and Ottawa lose especially when playing Western Conference teams or the Eastern Conference teams that I think are already in.
Detroit and Buffalo: Both teams are below the Canes right now but interesting cases. I said before the season started that the Red Wings are in rebuilding mode but that they just do not know it yet. Until they miss the playoffs, which they have not in forever, I guess they are a consideration. Buffalo is the other end of the spectrum as a team rising and probably a year or 2 away but who knows.
Philadelphia: By virtue of their huge 10-game winning streak, the Flyers are in playoff position, but they are struggling right now and headed in the wrong direction. Here is hoping that it lasts.
New Jersey and New York Islanders: If either of these teams become a concern, it likely means that the Hurricanes are headed in the wrong direction or that 1 of them surged. Either is a problem for the Hurricanes playoff hopes.
I think it is a matter of catching the Flyers which I think is doable and also that too many teams like Tampa or Florida do not find a higher gear and get red hot.
What say you Canes fans?
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