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‘Belief system is very strong’ for red-hot Hurricanes

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) In less than a month, the Carolina Hurricanes have gone from last place in the Eastern Conference to the edge of the playoff picture.

The Hurricanes enter the weekend four points behind Boston for the East’s eighth and final playoff spot with seven games remaining.

It’s been a remarkable turnaround for a team that earlier this week inherited the dubious distinction of owning the NHL’s longest active playoff drought – and all it took was earning at least one point in a franchise-record 13 straight games.

Heading into the final week of the season, they’ve got a chance – a slim one, but a chance nonetheless – to shed that label as quickly as they earned it.

“The belief system is very strong right now,” coach Bill Peters said.

They know they’ve got to remain near-perfect, though, starting with Saturday night’s game against Dallas and continuing through next week’s two-game road swing through playoff-bound Pittsburgh and Minnesota.

“It’s fun. That’s why you play the game,” said forward Jeff Skinner, who along with many of his teammates has never skated in a playoff game. “I think you look at guys are feeding off of each other, guys are playing well, we’re playing well as a team and it’s a lot of fun coming to the rink when you’ve got things on the line. Hopefully we can keep this thing rolling and keep it that way.”

The only other team in club history to earn points in 12 consecutive games went on to hoist the Stanley Cup in 2006.

These Hurricanes have gone 9-0-4 since March 9 to vault back into contention. They broke that 11-year-old club record Thursday night with a 2-1 overtime victory over Columbus in which Skinner scored the tying goal with 4:20 left in regulation, then set up Noah Hanifin‘s winner 2:16 into OT.

A pair of first-round draft picks has led the way: Skinner (2010) scored goals in a career-best six straight games, piling up nine points in that stretch, and Elias Lindholm (2013) had either a goal or an assist – or both – in 11 of those 13 games.

“We absolutely have a shot here to do this,” said Hanifin, their first-round pick in 2015.

Carolina’s string of seven straight years without making the tournament became the longest in the league when Edmonton clinched its first playoff berth since 2006. Coincidentally, the Oilers’ last appearance in the postseason came in 2006 – when they lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final to Carolina.

The Hurricanes’ only playoff berth since that championship season came in 2009 – when they won two early-round Game 7s to advance to the Eastern Conference final. Since then, they haven’t been close very often, finishing at least 10 points back in each of the last five years.

It wasn’t long ago that things looked bleak once again. Carolina was in last in the East on March 4 with 60 points, one behind the Detroit Red Wings, after a home loss to an Arizona team that remains the second-worst team in the league.

The Hurricanes have been tough to beat ever since.

“When you’re playing well, you want to get back out there,” said veteran goalie Cam Ward, the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. “We’re starving to go to the playoffs, but you can’t do it all in eight games. You’ve got to take one game at a time and not look too far in the future. We’ve been doing a good job of taking care of ourselves and coming to the rink each day and trying to win the day. … Winning’s fun, so we’re having a lot of fun.”

Follow Joedy McCreary at http://twitter.com/joedyap

U.S. women’s hockey team to play NWHL team in Olympic tune-up

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NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. women’s national team will play two exhibitions against some familiar faces from the National Women’s Hockey League next month in a final tune-up for the Olympics.

The games are set for Jan. 13 and Jan. 15 at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, Florida, where the national team has been training.

Eleven players currently on the U.S. roster competed in the NWHL during the 2016-17 season, USA Hockey said Thursday. The pro league enters its third season with teams in New York, Boston, Buffalo and Stamford, Connecticut.

”(The NWHL) continues to play at an elite level and does a great job of exposing the game in different markets,” USA Hockey women’s director Reagan Carey said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

Megan Bozek and Emily Pfalzer helped the Buffalo Beauts win the NWHL championship last March.

”The NWHL is honored to be welcomed by USA Hockey and to participate in this pair of important exhibition games,” NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said. ”Our players, coaches and staff are excited to have this opportunity.”

U.S. national team captain Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Gigi Marvin, Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy, Alex Carpenter and Amanda Pelkey played for the Boston Pride.

Amanda Kessel (New York Riveters) and Haley Skarupa (Connecticut Whale) also played in the pro league.

Many of the players on both rosters are either ex-teammates or completed against each other in college and the pros.

”The NWHL will do its best to give the players some strong competition so they’re ready to bring home the gold in February,” Rylan said.

The U.S. team won gold at the first women’s hockey event, at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Since then, the team has earned three silvers and a bronze in losses to Canada.

”We want to make sure the ’98 team has some company with the gold medal,” Carey said.

The Americans and Canadians will finish their six-game exhibition series with two games this weekend. The U.S. has a 1-3 record so far, but beat its rivals twice at The Four Nations Cup and won the title.

The teams have drawn good crowds in Canada and U.S. stops in Boston and St. Paul, Minnesota. They drew 9,000 flag-waving fans on Dec. 3 in a 2-1 overtime loss at the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild.

”It’s been great to see so many young girls and hockey teams,” Carey said. ”You can really see the growing landscape for young girls.”

The U.S. plays Canada on Friday night in San Jose, California. The Americans wrap up the series on Sunday night at Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers, in a game televised on NHL Network.

Oilers need healthy Talbot to give them a spark during upcoming crucial stretch

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At the start of the season, the Edmonton Oilers were one of the favorites to win or at least make it to the Stanley Cup Final. But through 32 games, their season has looked more like a train-wreck than a victory parade in-waiting.

Only the Arizona Coyotes are below the Oilers in the Western Conference standings right now, which is still kind of surprising.

One of the biggest reasons they’ve struggled in the first third of the season is because of goalie Cam Talbot. First, he wasn’t very good at the start of the season. Talbot wasn’t providing his team with the solid goaltending he had given them last year.

Second, just as he was rounding into form, he suffered a upper-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup since the end of November.

Prior to getting hurt, the 30-year-old had won three games in a row while allowing two goals in each of those outings. During his absence, Laurent Brossoit went 3-4-0. The Oilers backup netminder gave up three goals or more in four of those seven games.

On Friday, the Oilers (finally) got some positive news, as they activated their starting netminder from the injured list. According to head coach Todd McLellan, he’ll be between the pipes for Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Wild. Now, they just have to hope that he can pick up where he left off before landing on IR.

Earlier this season, Canadiens goaltender Carey Price was in a similar situation to Talbot’s. Price was awful out of the gate and the Canadiens were struggling. Nothing was going right for them. But after missing roughly three weeks with an injury, Price returned in tip-top shape. Even though Montreal is still outside of a playoff spot right now, they play of their goaltender has allowed them to get back into the race.

McLellan has to hope that Talbot’s “break” allowed him to get better and re-focus on the task at hand. Connor McDavid is still the face of the franchise, but he clearly can’t get the job done by himself.

Edmonton is about to jump into a crucial stretch of their season. After tomorrow’s game in Minnesota, they’ll play seven of their next eight games on home ice, where they have an ugly 5-10-0 record. If they want to get back in the playoff hunt, they’ll need to start racking up the wins at Rogers Place.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Maple Leafs help SickKids Foundation make giant cookie for Santa (Video)

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It’s always special to see NHL teams give back to their communities in original ways. The Toronto Maple Leafs found a pretty unique way to help out the SickKids Foundation. It even involved putting on a hairnet.

The Leafs made their annual visit to the SickKids Foundation earlier this month and some of them took part in a special tradition that involves making a giant cookie for Santa “no-trade” Claus (sorry).

Mike Babock, Wendel Clark and a few of the current members of the team worked hard to make sure that the finished product was all quality.

Babcock barking out orders in the kitchen is hilarious. Him emphasizing “cream your sugar” is pretty good, too.

“I come here on a regular basis and the people here are stars,” Babcock said, per the Toronto Star. “If you think of your children getting diagnosed with something, let’s say cancer, it’s an awful thing and you want to go to the best place, with the best doctors, so you can feel the best. To me that’s what this place is all about.

“Sometimes when things are going really good in your life you need to take a step back, take a deep breath to understand how lucky you are.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s supposed to be pretty cold during tomorrow’s NHL 100 Classic in Ottawa

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We’re just over 24 hours away from the “NHL 100 Classic” outdoor game between the Canadiens and Senators at TD Place in Ottawa. Don’t forget, you can watch that game online tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. ET via the NBC Sports app.

If you’re considering watching the game at home, that’s probably a wise move considering it’s going to be freezing in Ottawa on Saturday night.

According to the Weather Network, it’s supposed to be mainly clear. It’s also going to be 7 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’ll feel more like minus-4 because of the wind-chill factor.

“There are going to be moments we wish we were inside,” Sens captain Erik Karlsson said, according to TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

And Bobby Ryan is a little confused:

“I can’t even pronounce the thing that goes over your head,” Ryan told TSN Radio’s Ian Mendes. “It’s sounds like a dessert — a balaclava or whatever.”

As fun as this might be, it’s still a huge game between two Atlantic Division rivals. The Canadiens are two points behind Boston for third in the Atlantic and the Sens are five points behind Montreal.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.