Hurricanes keep pace in Central Division; Key points slip away for Blackhawks

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The Hurricanes and Blackhawks are in the middle of very different Central Division races, but Thursday’s game was important to both teams.

You could see the difference in the level of these two teams at plenty of points. Carolina controlled the puck for long swaths of the contest, especially early on.

That said, the Blackhawks found a way to stick with it — until the dying moments, and that’s what must make the Hurricanes’ 4-3 win hurt. Especially since it happened during regulation.

Hurricanes in race atop Central; Blackhawks in fight for last Central playoff spot

Thursday represented a busy day in the Central Division, even beyond Hurricanes vs. Blackhawks.

In Carolina’s case, the other top Central Division teams won their games.

Updated standings atop the Central Division

Lightning: 25-9-2, 52 points in 36 games played (beat Blue Jackets 3-2)
Panthers: 24-9-4, 52 points in 37 GP (won 3-2 in overtime vs. Detroit)
Hurricanes: 24-8-3, 51 points in 35 GP (regulation win vs. Blackhawks)

It would have been even more satisfying for the ‘Canes if they won while one or more of their opponents slipped. But, with a game or two in hand, and how much this went down to the wire, this is a satisfying result for Carolina.

Updated race for fourth Central Division playoff spot

Predators: 19-18-1, 39 points in 38 GP (16 regulation/overtime wins) – Stars broke their winning streak in regulation
Blackhawks: 17-6-5, 39 points in 38 GP (15 ROW) – again, lost to Hurricanes in regulation
Blue Jackets: 14-16-8, 36 points in 38 GP (12 ROW) – fell to Lightning in regulation
Stars: 12-12-10, 34 points in 34 GP (11 ROW) – beat the Predators in regulation

As you can see, the Blackhawks could have stepped into that fourth Central Division playoff spot — at least for now — if they merely made it to overtime. Yep, that’s painful.

Still, the Blackhawks can take some solace in that they didn’t lose ground to the Predators or Blue Jackets.

Of course, the Stars make things more complicated, being that they’re only five points behind the Blackhawks and Predators (and two behind Columbus) with four games in hand.

From here, Chicago faces the Predators in their next game, take on the Stars twice, and the Blue Jackets twice. The Blackhawks wanted more, but splitting these past two games vs. the Hurricanes is promising enough.

‘Gross hockey’ benefitting Blackhawks vs. Hurricanes?

After the Blackhawks beat the Hurricanes 2-1 on Tuesday despite only firing 16 shots on goal, Rod Brind’Amour called it like many saw it.

“We gave them two goals,” Brind’Amour said, via the AP. “It was kind of a gross hockey game to be honest with you.”

“It wasn’t like we gave much, but we didn’t do enough to win the game.”

Through much of Thursday’s game, it felt like a sequel. Of an already bad horror movie.

Early on, Blackhawks only managed “gross hockey” vs. the Hurricanes. Carolina probably could have been up more than 1-0 through a first period where they generated a 13-3 shots on goal advantage.

When Warren Foegele made it 2-0 just 2:22 into the second period,* it seemed like the Hurricanes might win easily against the Blackhawks. Thanks to an improved pushback from the Blackhawks, and Kevin Lankinen continuing his strong play, this game gradually turned into a nail-biter.

* – Yes, that’s a lot of two’s.

Once it became clear that the Blackhawks might stay in Thursday’s game against the Hurricanes, it seemed like goaltending might be the difference. James Reimer looked shaky at times, while Lankinen made several difficult saves.

The ending changed that mood, though.

Despite looking behind him, Reimer made a key save in the waning moments of the third. Then Jesper Fast put a rebound past Lankinen with about 30 seconds remaining, securing a win that had to really burn a Chicago team that seemed like it might steal a point or two.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.