Hot streak helps Hurricanes surge into playoff contention

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes have skated their way out of being tied for last place into playoff contention – all in just six weeks.

They have been the NHL’s best team since Dec. 30, going 14-5-1 in that stretch while making an improbable push to snap the league’s longest active postseason drought.

The Hurricanes entered Thursday night’s games three points out of a playoff spot with 25 games remaining, a stretch run that starts Friday night when Edmonton visits.

”The important thing is, playoff teams get it,” captain Justin Williams said Thursday. ”We’re doing what’s necessary right now. We know where we are. All we need to do is keep winning and not worry about what’s going on above us.”

As much progress as the Hurricanes have made lately, there’s still so much further to go to reach the postseason for the first time since 2009 and only the second time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.

Not long ago, they seemed destined to set an NHL record for futility by going 10 straight seasons without making the playoffs.

And they still might. But at least for now, they’ve made things interesting.

They were tied with New Jersey and Philadelphia for last in the division on Dec. 30 with 35 points, and were one point better than Ottawa for last in the Eastern Conference.

In a relatively short period of time, though, the Hurricanes have figured things out and have become pretty tough to beat. They’ve earned 29 points in that time span, one more than the New York Islanders and two more than St. Louis.

And most recently, they went 4-1 on a five-game road trip. The last time that happened was in 1998, when PNC Arena was still under construction and the Hurricanes were playing their home games in Greensboro.

”It was a big road trip, and we’re doing what we need to do right now,” Williams said, ”which is banking wins and seeing what happens.”

The offense appears to have found its scoring touch, with an NHL-best 76 goals over that 20-game span. Sebastian Aho has 25 points – nine goals, 16 assists – during the team’s hot streak while linemate Teuvo Teravainen has 22 – nine goals, 13 assists.

And Nino Niederreiter has fit right in with his new team, racking up 10 points in 11 games since he was acquired from Minnesota in a trade for Victor Rask.

And with the league’s trading deadline Feb. 25, the big question remains whether the Hurricanes will be buyers or sellers.

Micheal Ferland, acquired in a blockbuster offseason trade with Calgary, is due to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, so naturally, trade rumors have surrounded him. But it might be worth it to Carolina to keep the hard-hitting forward with 15 goals and 16 assists for the stretch run – and perhaps try to sign him to a contract extension.

”I’d like to get a deal done, obviously,” Ferland said. ”We’ve put ourselves in a good spot, trying to get into the playoffs. I’d like to stay here and help this team.”

Stop worrying about Maple Leafs’ salary cap situation

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Stop it.

You’re probably doing it right now.

You’re probably looking at the news that the Toronto Maple Leafs signed superstar center Auston Matthews to a five-year, $58.17 million contract extension on Tuesday and starting to panic.

You’re thinking about the contract extension they just gave William Nylander earlier this season, following the massive contract they gave to John Tavares in free agency.

You’re thinking about the contract negotiation they now have to go through with Mitch Marner this upcoming summer and wondering which one of them they’re going to trade.

[RELATED: Maple Leafs sign Auston Matthews to five-year, $58.17M contract]

Maybe you’re even naive enough to think one of the other 30 general managers in the NHL, despite a mountain of evidence over several years to the contrary, is going to suddenly grow some guts this summer and try to sign Marner to a restricted free agent offer sheet, while also believing that Marner might want to actually play for the undoubtedly worse team that is offering it, bypassing an opportunity to get still get paid a ton of money and be a part of a Stanley Cup contending team in Toronto.

How can they pay all of these players? How can they keep them all? Who will they have to trade for DEFENSE?! This can’t work, you’re screaming!

Yeah, you might be doing that.

Well, if are you are, stop doing that. Right now. Because not only are the Maple Leafs going to figure out a way to keep all of Matthews, Nylander, Marner, and Tavares, they are still going to have a chance to win by doing so. I’ve made this argument so many times I know I’m repeating myself, but until the hockey viewing and observing world gets over this fear of paying elite players I am prepared to continue pounding the table over this.

Make no mistake, the Maple Leafs will have to get rid of some people. They will have to make tough decisions and make trades and cut salary somewhere on the roster. But it is not going to be one of those four players. It shouldn’t be anyway. It also doesn’t have to be.

This situation is not unique to the Maple Leafs. They are not the first team in the salary cap era that has had to pay a core of All-Star level players big money at the same time while also trying to figure out a way to still build a competent team around them. They are not the first team that is going to have tough decisions to make. If your natural reaction to seeing the Maple Leafs do this with Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, and Marner is that it can’t work then you haven’t been paying attention to, quite literally, every Stanley Cup winning team in the salary cap era. All of them have a core of four or five players that takes up close to half (or even more than half) of their allotted salary cap space. It is a necessary part of winning, as long as that money is going to the right players.

These four players are the right players.

Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, that Marner gets $10 million per year on his next contract, which might be a good ballpark figure. It’s more than Nylander, little less than Matthews, and that is probably fair because that is where he fits on the Maple Leafs’ talent hierarchy. That would mean the Maple Leafs would open next season with $39.4 million committed to the quartet of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares. If the projected 2019-20 salary cap ceiling of $83 million becomes a reality, that is around 47 percent of the Maple Leafs’ allotted space.

Just for fun, here’s a little comparison of the past three Stanley Cup winners, who also had some pretty high-profile players on their rosters.

You are not winning the Stanley Cup without players of that caliber. Players of that caliber cost a lot of money. Every year between 2010 and 2015 we used to hear about how the Penguins’ model with a couple of big-money players at the top wasn’t working and they might have to trade one to get more depth. Alex Ovechkin‘s contract was just too much for the Capitals to win with because you can’t have one player taking up such a big portion of your salary cap space.

Rubbish.

Does this mean the Maple Leafs are going to be able to keep everybody they want? No. They will have to make some difficult decisions in the coming years. They might have to dump Patrick Marleau‘s contract this offseason. They might have to trade a young player like Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnnson. Or maybe even a Zach Hyman or a Connor Brown. And that’s okay. Those players are replaceable. Maybe not easily replaceable, but still replaceable. You can find another Kasperi Kapanen.

You’re not going to find another Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner.

Just look at the Capitals in the summer before their 2017-18 Stanley Cup season. The salary cap worked against them and they had to make some tough cuts. They couldn’t re-sign Justin Williams and they had to trade Marcus Johansson for pennies on the dollar. But they still had their core, made enough shrewd signings and trades, and had enough young talent coming through the system that they could still piece a competent team around their core and win the Stanley Cup.

Just like the Penguins did the two years before.

The Maple Leafs will be pressed against the salary cap for the foreseeable future, and some second-and third-tier cuts will be happening. But they also have a smart front office that no doubt knows what it’s going to take to make it work, and a front office that knows the type of talent you need to compete. They have it, they kept it. And before you start talking about their defense and how they could, in theory, trade Nylander or Marner for help on the blue line just remember they have a No. 1 defenseman in Morgan Rielly locked up on a long-term, bargain contract for the next few years and just acquired another top-pairing defender in Jake Muzzin without having to trade a core player of their own.

They have the core that can compete for a Stanley Cup. It is definitely not cheap, and it is not going to be easy, but neither is actually winning the Stanley Cup. This is simply the price you have to pay.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Hurricanes the team to watch as trade deadline approaches

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The Carolina Hurricanes are a team worth watching right now for a lot of reasons.

By winning eight of their past 11 games they have inched their way back into the playoff discussion in the Eastern Conference. At least enough to be considered on the bubble. Yes, five points back in mid-January is still a pretty big hill to climb, but they’re making a run at it.

They also have the Storm Surge celebrations after wins on home ice as they add a little excitement to the league. Great stuff.

[Related: Ranking the Hurricanes’ victory celebrations]

One of the other reasons you should be keeping an eye on them is they are one of the most intriguing teams in the league when it comes to the upcoming Feb. 25 trade deadline because of the contract situations, the makeup of their roster, and their position in the standings.

The contract and roster situations include…

  • Almost all of their long-term commitments being on the blue line. All of their regular NHL defenders are signed through at least the end of next season, while four of them run through at least 2021 (and two of them go beyond 2024).
  • Their only goalie under contract beyond this season is Scott Darling … who is currently buried in the American Hockey League. Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney are both unrestricted free agents after this season.
  • Almost all of their forwards are some kind of a free agent after this season. The only forwards under contract beyond this season are Jordan Staal, Victor Rask, Andrei Svechnikov, Warren Foegele, and Lucas Wallmark. The latter three are still on their entry-level deals. They have four potential unrestricted free agents (including captain Justin Williams) and five restricted free agents, including two of their top offensive players in Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.

Then there is the place in the standings. Like a lot of the teams in the Western Conference wild card race, the Hurricanes have to figure out exactly what they are this season — a team that has a legitimate shot to make the playoffs and might want to add something, or at least stay the course as currently constructed? Or are they a team that is too far back and needs to go into “sell” mode, especially with its current crop of free agents?

One thing is certain, the Hurricanes have a lot of intriguing players when it comes to potential trade chips.

For one, they still have a ton of depth along the blue line and could still flip one of their defenders for help elsewhere around the roster. Justin Faulk‘s name was all over the rumor mill during the offseason (especially after the addition of Dougie Hamilton) but remained with the team. There was also a rumbling in recent weeks that they might — might — be willing to listen to offers on Hamilton, but that seems like a real long-shot given that they are barely a half of a season into it and they would probably be dealing him at his lowest possible value. The best bet there is to hold on to him and trust that he regains the form and production he has shown throughout his career.

The forwards are where the real intrigue comes in because, again, so many of them are on expiring contracts.

It is probably pretty safe to say that Aho and Teravainen are not going anywhere. Not only are the team’s two best forwards, they are both young and just now entering their primes. Even if you assume the Hurricanes are not going to be a team that spends to the salary cap they still have all the flexibility in the world to get them signed.

The most likely player to get moved would seem to be forward Micheal Ferland (the other part of the Hamilton trade) who is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season and is probably in line for a fairly substantial raise from his current $1.75 million salary. He would also probably be able to get that on the open market because he’s the type of player that appeals to pretty much everyone in the league. He has size, is physical, is probably going to be a 20-goal, 40-point player for the second year in a row and once again has strong underlying numbers. He’s a good player that a lot of teams would want — especially around playoff time.

The other variable in all of this is just where the Hurricanes sit in the standings as we get closer to the deadline.

They have been a patient team that has always kept the long-term goal in mind, and even with the recent surge they really haven’t picked up that much ground in the standings when it comes to wild card positioning. It’s still asking a lot for them to get in or to expect them to try and actually add to this roster this season by giving up younger, future assets.

But it is also a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008-09, and if they can stack a few more wins together and keep staying afloat in the race it might change how much they are willing to trade or sell off in the short-term.

There are a lot of different directions this can go in the coming weeks, and a lot of it will probably depend on how long they can keep up this recent strong play.

More: Who has the inside track in the Western Conference wild card race?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Power Rankings: Ranking the Hurricanes’ victory celebrations

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The Carolina Hurricanes have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the past two weeks with wins in seven out of their past eight games. This little surge has allowed them to creep back to within four points of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

They obviously still have a long way to go, and based on where they are in the standings and the deficit they still have in front of them the odds are not in their favor. But they are at least hanging around and trying to make a run at it, and they are kind of fun to watch.

One of the reasons they have been so fun is because they have been the best team in the NHL this season when it comes to angering the old guy that likes to yell at clouds due to the way they celebrate their wins on home ice.

You know, stuff like this.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what anybody else thinks of it because the players are obviously enjoying it, the fans are obviously enjoying it, and this is all supposed to be entertainment. If you can’t have fun when you’re winning then what the hell are we all doing here? What is the point of all of this?

Something different is good!

If I have one criticism of the whole thing it’s that they also don’t do it on the road to a chorus of boos from opposing fans. Let’s be honest here, a team from the south going into a place like, I don’t know, let’s say … Toronto … and doing this after a win would be pure comedy gold if only for the reactions it would cause.

Do it on the road you cowards!

With all of that in mind, this week’s PHT Power Rankings (one of our bi-weekly random rankings) will take a look at all of the Hurricanes’ victory celebrations.

All rankings are final.

1. Jan. 4 win vs. Columbus (Thor Hammer Strike)

This is the best one yet and I am not really sure there is a close contender at this point.

2. Nov. 23 win vs. Florida (The domino surge)

After doing the SKOL clap the Hurricanes line up staggered throughout the neutral zone and knock each other over like a bunch of dominoes. It’s different, it’s unique even for them, and to this point it is their best effort and most creative effort.

3. Jan. 11 win vs. Buffalo (Bowling for Hurricanes)

Captain Justin Williams goes bowling after a big win over the Buffalo Sabres. It is pretty self explanatory, but also pretty awesome. [Watch it here]

4. Dec. 31 win vs. Philadelphia (Putting the rookie in the net)

The Hurricanes are hoping that Andrei Svechnikov is going to put a lot of pucks in the net throughout his career. They celebrated their New Year’s Eve win over the Philadelphia Flyers by putting him in the net.

5. Oct. 8 and 10 wins vs. Vancouver and New York (The one that started it all)

There is always something to be said for the classics and the one that starts it all. You can see it in the video at the top.

6. Oct. 26 win vs. San Jose (Row the boat)

It starts off looking like the original, and then quickly escalates into something new. This is the first time we saw any sort of variation in the celebration. [Watch it here]

7. Nov. 18 win vs. New Jersey

This was when the celebrations really started to vary a little bit in terms of what they were doing instead of just a different variation of the original. It’s different. It’s good. But it’s not one of their best.

8. Dec. 23 win vs. Boston (Hello, Pucky the Whale)

Have to be honest here, am not really a fan of the celebration itself or the Hurricanes wearing Whalers gear. On the other hand, anything that involves Pucky The Whale is okay in my book. [Watch it here]

9. Dec. 16 win vs. Arizona (Ships passing in the night)

Half of the team lines up on one blue line, the other half lines up on the other, they do the SKOL clap, and then charge toward the glass at the opposite end of the rink, passing by each other.  [Watch it here]

10. Nov. 21 win vs. Toronto (The one that made Brian Burke mad)

You just knew once they did this against a big-time original six team that the criticism would really start to come out, and that is exactly what happened when former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke referred to all of this as “pee-wee garbage stuff.” Instead of the entire team charging toward the end glass, they all split up and went throughout the rink. [Watch it here]

11. Nov. 12 win vs. Chicago

12. Jan. 13 vs. Nashville 

Sunday’s win against Nashville featured a variation of their Dec. 16 celebration against the Arizona Coyotes with the team splitting up at opposite blue lines, and then shoulder bumping at center ice. It’s okay. It’s not great. Such a big win over a Stanley Cup contender probably deserved more. [Watch it here]

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Aho helps Hurricanes keep rolling; Islanders, Flames win big

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. With wins in seven out of their past eight games the Carolina Hurricanes are trying to make a run at a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They continued their recent strong play on Sunday afternoon with a very impressive win over one of the league’s best teams, the Nashville Predators, and it was Sebastian Aho once again leading the way. Aho finished with four points, including a hat trick, in the 6-3 win. Aho now has 12 points during this recent eight-game stretch and is up to 21 goals and 51 total points for the season. He is having an incredible season.

2. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames are looking like one of the best teams in the NHL and dominated the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday night with an emphatic 7-1 win that featured another huge game for Norris Trophy contender Mark Giordano. Giordano scored two goals and added an assist in the win as he continues what has been the best season of his already strong career.

3. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders. This was a complete beatdown for the New York Islanders as they raced out to an early three-goal lead against the NHL’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and never looked back. One of the reasons they never looked back is because Thomas Greiss stopped 38 out of the 39 shots he faced. Regular starter Robin Lehner has been one of the Islanders’ best and most important players this season, but Greiss has been outstanding as well and now has a save percentage north of .917 for the season, which is well above the league average. 

Other notable performances from Sunday

  • Artemi Panarin had two more points and Nick Foligno scored two goals as the Columbus Blue Jackets were all over the New York Rangers in a 7-5 win that left Rangers coach David Quinn fuming angry after it was over.
  • Johnny Gaudreau had two more points to give him 67 on the season, tying him with Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid for third-most in the league. They are both just one point behind Mikko Rantanen of the Colroado Avalanche for second in the scoring race. Everyone is a distance second to Tampa Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov, who was held off the scoresheet on Sunday night, something that has not happened very much this season.
  • The New York Islanders’ fourth line played a big role in their win over the Tampa Bay Lightning by scoring a pair of goals. Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin all had two points in the win.

Highlights of the Night

Yes, it came in a losing effort but Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg scored a pretty incredible goal on Sunday afternoon.

The Vancouver Canucks did not get Michael Matheson to drop the gloves in response to his body-slam on prized rookie Elias Petterson earlier this season, but they did get plenty of revenge on the scored with a 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers. Jacob Markstrom had a great night in goal against his former team with this fancy glove save being his best of the night. 

The Winnipeg Jets sent the Anaheim Ducks to their 11th straight defeat thanks to this overtime goal from Bryan Little with 10 seconds remaining in the overtime period. 

Factoids

  • Winnipeg Jet forward Patrik Laine scored his 25th goal of the season on Sunday, giving him three 25-goal seasons in the NHL before celebrating his 21st birthday. Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Carpenter, Dale Hawerchuk, Brian Bellows, Jimmy Carson, and Ilya Kovalchuk are the only other players in league history to accomplish that feat. [NHL PR]
  • The Calgary Flames needed just 47 games to record their 30th win of the season, matching a franchise record for fewest games needed to win 30 games in a season. The other season they did it was the 1988-89 campaign, when they went on to win the Stanley Cup. [NHL PR]
  • Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin Williams extended his goal-scoring streak to five games on Sunday afternoon, making him just the sixth player in NHL history to record a goal-scoring streak of at least five games after celebrating their 37th birthday. [NHL PR]

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 6, Nashville Predators 3

Winnipeg Jets 4, Anaheim Ducks 3 (OT)

Columbus Blue Jackets 7, New York Rangers 5

Vancouver Canucks 5, Florida Panthers 1

New York Islanders 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 1

Calgary Flames 7, Arizona Coyotes 1

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.