Eric Staal, Erik Cole, Jussi Jokinen

Are Hurricanes set to make a move in Eastern Conference playoff race?

Tonight’s trip to Chicago marks the second game in an important back-to-back as the Carolina Hurricanes battle for one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Only one night after a thrilling overtime victory against the Sabres, a proverbial 4-point game, the Canes will face the surging Chicago Blackhawks in a game that both teams need to keep pace in their respective playoff races. Carolina will look to avoid a letdown as they try to chase down the Canadiens for the 6th spot.

Only a few weeks ago, the rumors around the league were that Carolina was going to be a seller at the deadline. Fast-forward to today and see that not only did the Hurricanes add a couple of players to the mix, but both Erik Cole and Joni Pitkanen are still members of their club. Just as we saw all over the league, parity will make teams switch roles quicker than we’ve ever seen.

Let’s take a look at what GM Jim Rutherford was able to do over the last few weeks. He jettisoned both Ian White and Sergei Samsonov who were treading water for the Canes and replaced them with players who are expected to contribute in Bryan Allen and Cory Stillman. Everyone knows the games down the stretch are harder fought with battles for every inch of ice. Allen and Stillman are exactly the type of players who thrive when the game gets more physical.

Clearly, the Canes aren’t the type of team that is going to strike fear into the hearts of fans around the league. But as Rutherford says, they’re a better team than they get credit for:

“I know there are better teams out there on paper than we are, but there might’ve been better teams on paper than we were in ’06, too,” Rutherford said in reference to Carolina’s championship season. “If you get the right breaks and play the right teams and all the things that you need to do come through in the playoffs, we have a structure here that would give us a chance to have a much more successful season than I think people would have thought we would have.”

The Hurricanes recent success in the playoffs speaks to the way Rutherford builds teams. Since the lockout, they’ve made it to the Eastern Conference Finals twice and won the Cup in 2006. Then again, the other three seasons Carolina didn’t even make the playoffs. The moral of the story? Opponents better hope they don’t make the playoffs because they’ll probably make noise if they do.

The secret that Rutherford seems to have figured out is the way he builds his teams. Down the middle, they have three centers who are extremely tough to play against. Brandon Sutter’s game looks like it was created specifically to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Their top line with Eric Staal, Erik Cole, and Cory Stillman has proven it can survive the rigors of the playoffs, wear down the other team, and emerge victorious in a 7-game series. Stay-at-home defensemen Bryan Allen and Tim Gleason are great compliments to Joni Pitkanen, rookie Jaime McBain, and Joe Corvo. The team is built to spread the responsibility around and not rely too heavily on a player or two.

There’s not doubt that Carolina has been a picture of mediocrity with their 6-6-3 record since the All-Star break. So why are we talking about the Canes as a team that could make a move down the stretch? Jim Rutherford. That’s why. With two mid-level deals he completely changed the face of his squad. The return of Stillman gives the Canes a formidable top-line and should help their struggling power play. He has 3 points in his 4 games since arriving in Raleigh and has helped create a few more goals for the team. Bryan Allen can play the tough minutes on the PK and instantly gives Carolina the depth on their blueline that they’ll need. The guys over at the Hurricanes blog Canes Country agree:

“It can’t be overstated how important it is to keep your defense fresh down the stretch. With a night of travel and a game Friday on tap for the Canes, having their defenders evenly sharing the workload should do a world of good compared to running Pitkanen and Corvo into the ground with ice times creeping toward 30 minutes. Throw in the fact they were able to do it in the biggest game of the year [vs. Buffalo], and GM Jim Rutherford has to be thrilled with how his changes on D have morphed the way Carolina approaches its game management.”

It’s hard not to like their top two lines and their defensive corps depth. Calder Trophy candidate Jeff Skinner is leading the NHL in rookie scoring with 22 goals and 26 assists. Tuomo Ruutu has 45 points while being a complete pain to play against and Chad LaRose has always had the knack of scoring big goals in his career.

On the occasion that the 18 guys on the ice aren’t getting it done, an all-star and Conn Smythe winning goaltender is always there to pick up the team. Even though he’s facing over 32 shots per game, Cam Ward still owns a .920 save percentage.

Exactly the kind of guy a team would want if they were looking to make a run towards the playoffs. Correction: exactly the kind of team to make a run towards the playoffs.

Sharks defeat Hurricanes, but Vlasic exits game with lower-body injury

Marc-Edouard Vlasic
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Talk about the ideal start.

Patrick Marleau scored just 12 seconds into the first period and the San Jose Sharks had a 2-1 lead before Saturday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes was even four minutes old.

The Sharks held on for a 4-3 win over the Hurricanes, Kevin Labanc‘s goal late in the second period standing as the winner, as the two teams traded three goals in the span of just over three minutes.

It remains awfully crowded in the Pacific Division. The Flames lead with 34 points, while the Sharks, Ducks and Oilers are all one point back.

The victory came with bad news for the Sharks.

Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game in the second period and didn’t return. He’s now day-to-day with a lower-body injury, according to coach Pete DeBoer following the win.

Flames dominate the Jets to take over top spot in the Pacific Division

CALGARY, AB - DECEMBER 10: Dougie Hamilton #27 of the Calgary Flames celebrates after scoring his team's third goal against the Winnipeg Jets during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on December 10, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Is there a changing of the guard in the Pacific Division?

It’s the middle of December and the Calgary Flames, now with six straight wins, lead the same division dominated last season by the California powers in Anaheim, San Jose and L.A. The Edmonton Oilers have been inconsistent at times this season but they are right there, too, one point back. Same goes for the Ducks. The Sharks and Kings are definitely in contention.

There is plenty of hockey remaining in the season. Plenty of chances for change in the NHL’s division standings, including in the Pacific. But there’s no denying the Flames are on an impressive run.

Late last month, they had a particularly frustrating loss to Philadelphia and coach Glen Gulutzan voiced his displeasure about it. They followed that up the next day with an overtime loss to the Islanders. Prior to that weekend, there had been rumblings about the future of Gulutzan with the club, despite being only a few months into his tenure.

But since then, the Flames have yet to lose. They continued their winning streak with a convincing 6-2 victory over the visiting Jets on Saturday.

Dougie Hamilton — remember all that trade speculation surrounding the Flames defenseman and Brian Burke’s classic response? — had two goals for Calgary. Chad Johnson was solid in net again. It was a pretty dominant performance all around.

Frustrating night for the Jets and it showed when Dustin Byfuglien dropped the gloves with Garnet Hathaway late in the third period.

There are more difficult tests ahead for Calgary.

The Flames face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday and then the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday.

In previous seasons, a Friday night game between the Flames and Blue Jackets in the middle of December might not garner much interest. But they are both among the hottest teams in the league right now and it’s likely not many would’ve predicted that a short time ago.

Video: Perlini’s first NHL goal helps lift Coyotes over Predators

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 10:  Brendan Perlini #29 of the Arizona Coyotes reacts alongside Calle Jarnkrok #19 of the Nashville Predators after Perlini scored his first career goal during the second period of the NHL game at Gila River Arena on December 10, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Arizona Coyotes have moved out of last place in the NHL’s overall standings, courtesy a 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Minus forward Max Domi, placed on IR and expected to be out on a week-to-week basis, the Coyotes got a 44-save performance from goalie Mike Smith and recently recalled forward Brendan Perlini pitched in with his first career NHL goal.

That goal gave Arizona a 3-1 lead. Thanks to the play of Smith, the Coyotes wouldn’t relinquish the lead, snapping a six-game losing skid.

It wasn’t all good news for the Coyotes.

Defenseman Connor Murphy played only 4:12. He left the game with an upper-body injury and didn’t return. Per reports, Murphy is considered day-to-day at this point.

The Blue Jackets just keep on winning

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 15:  Zach Werenski #8 of the Columbus Blue Jackets is congratulated by Cam Atkinson #13 of the Columbus Blue Jackets after scoring his first career NHL goal during the third period of the game against the San Jose Sharks on October 15, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. San Jose defeated Columbus 3-2. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Jack Johnson, Cam Atkinson and Seth Jones each had a goal and an assist as the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the New York Islanders 6-2 on Saturday night for their sixth straight win.

Josh Anderson, Brandon Saad and Lukas Sedlak also scored for Columbus and Sergei Bobrovsky had 25 saves.

Josh Bailey and John Tavares scored for New York, which had earned a point in a season-high five straight games (4-0-1). Jaroslav Halak made 32 saves until he was pulled after the Blue Jackets scored four consecutive goals in the third period.

Anderson put Columbus ahead 3-2 at 2:19 when he picked off a defensive pass and banged it in from the slot seconds after coming onto the ice for his shift.

Saad, Sedlak and Jones scored in a 5-minute span to make it 6-2 with 5:37 to go.

New York’s third-string goalie Jean-Francois Berube then replaced Halak and stopped the one shot he faced in his season debut.

The Islanders came out quick and it took Columbus a while to get going. New York took a 1-0 lead 5:59 in when a defensive pass by the Blue Jackets’ Sam Gagner at the boards was deflected by Bailey, and the popup was bobbled by Bobrovsky into the net. Bailey was given credit for an unassisted goal.

The Blue Jackets tied it up on a power play with 6:01 left in the first when Johnson wound up from just inside the neutral zone and fired a bullet past Halak. It was Johnson’s first goal of the season.

Columbus’ Brandon Dubinsky and New York’s Travis Harmonic went to the penalty box for 5 minutes each when both threw down the gloves and threw punches near the end of the first quarter.

Columbus took a 2-1 lead when a speeding Atkinson took a pass from Johnson in the neutral zone and beat Halak on the breakaway 10:16 into the second. New York tied with 7:28 left in the period when Tavares lifted the puck over Bobrovsky’s pad from in front of the net.

The Blue Jackets took off in the third period.

After Anderson gave Columbus the lead for good, Saad made it 4-2 on a wrister from the high slot at 9:23.

Sedlak, who scored his first NHL goal on Friday night, scored another when he tapped in a loose puck with 7:21 to go. Jones capped it with just over 5 1/2 minutes remaining.