Hurricanes in position to end NHL’s longest active playoff drought

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The last time the Carolina Hurricanes were in the playoffs, the Black Eyed Peas were on top of the charts and The Hangover was just about to hit theaters. This year, the “bunch of jerks” from Raleigh have a legitimate chance to end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

Postseason hockey was last seen in Carolina in May of 2009, when the Canes were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. Not one member of that playoff roster remains on the team, except for captain Rod Brind’Amour, who is now behind the bench. Justin Williams, the Canes’ current captain, was traded to Los Angeles in March of 2009 before the playoffs began.

Fast forward 10 years to this March, where with 11 games to play, the Canes are in the first wild card spot in the East. They’re also just three points behind the Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division, with two games in hand. That positioning has to do with a recent surge in which Carolina has gone 11-3-1 in their past 15 games, have converted on 21.9 percent of their power plays during that stretch and also killed off 34 of 37 penalties.

Outside of Williams, who has three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume, Carolina is led by a slew of underrated up-and-comers. Sebastian Aho is in the middle of a career season and is on track to become just the second player in Carolina history (not including the Hartford Whalers) to record 90 points. Eric Staal did so with 100 points in 2005-06. The team’s leaders in time on ice this season are Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce. Goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have combined for just 176 wins over the past 11 seasons. And yet, the Hurricanes have the seventh best defense and sixth best penalty kill in the NHL.

Beyond their collective lack of experience, a glance at the roster would probably place goaltending as Carolina’s biggest concern entering the final few weeks of the season, though their netminders have been sensational of late. McElhinney is 11-3-1 dating back to New Year’s Eve with a 2.66 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and two shutouts. While he struggled in his latest start against Columbus, Mrazek has been terrific over the past month, going 6-1-0 over his last seven starts with a 1.71 goals against average, a .943 save percentage and two shutouts of his own. Still, performing that well in the playoffs is something new entirely. McElhinney has never made a postseason start. Mrazek took the Detroit Red Wings to Game 7 of the opening round against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015, but has never won a playoff series. His latest postseason appearance came last year with the Philadelphia Flyers, when he allowed two goals on 14 shots in relief during a game that the Penguins won 7-0.

If they can hang on to a playoff spot and snap their nine-season drought, the Canes will most certainly be underdogs in the first round, no matter their opponent. But there is no reason not to enjoy what Carolina has already accomplished this season in their push toward the playoffs.

When he signed with the Hurricanes before the 2017-18 season, Williams made it clear he wanted the team’s culture to change.

“You have to go through trying years and failure before you get to your goal,” Williams said. “We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant.”

It took a year longer than Williams might have liked, but between making a playoff push and enjoying their viral post-game celebrations, the Hurricanes are relevant once more.

Push for the Playoffs: Hurricanes, Blue Jackets square off in huge matchup

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets haven’t locked up a playoff spot just yet, but a win tonight would go a long way in solidifying their chances of making an appearance in the postseason. As you’ll notice below, the ‘Canes have a much better chance of getting in right now. On the other hand, that could change significantly with tonight’s result.

Carolina suffered an embarrassing result against the Winnipeg Jets last Friday, as they fell, 8-1, at home. How did they bounce back? Well, they went to Nashville and won, and they followed that up by winning in Colorado, 3-0. If you’re going to suffer an embarrassing home loss like that, you can’t let it linger at this stage of the season.

“There’s a level, a standard, the room expects every night and that’s to win,” Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour said after the win over Colorado, per NHL.com. In order to win, you have to play a certain way and compete a certain way. That’s what we’re getting night in and night out for the most part. We’ve had a little hiccup there, but other than that the group comes ready to play.”

After making all those “win-now” moves at the deadline, the Blue Jackets stumbled into the month of March. They dropped five of their first six games (their only win came in a shootout against the Devils), but they managed to get a huge win against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night.

After hosting the Hurricanes tonight, the Jackets will hit the road, as they’ll play in Boston, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver over the next week. This is an important stretch for this Jackets team, because they’re tied for the final Wild Card spot with Montreal, but they own a game in hand and they have more ROW victories. They have an opportunity to put some space between themselves and the Canadiens, and they have to do it if they want to play meaningful games in April.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Sharks vs. Coyotes
Jets vs. Blues
Flames vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Stars

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS 
Flyers at Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET
Hurricanes at Blues Jackets, 7 p.m. ET
Golden Knights at Stars, 8 p.m. ET
Ducks at Avalanche, 9 p.m. ET
Rangers at Flames, 9 p.m. ET
Devils at Canucks, 10 p.m. ET

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning – In
Maple Leafs – 100 percent
Capitals – 100 percent
Bruins – 99.9 percent
Islanders – 99 percent
Penguins – 99 percent
Hurricanes – 91.6 percent
Blue Jackets – 67.6 percent
Canadiens – 37.9 percent
Flyers – 3.4 percent
Panthers – 1.6 percent
Sabres – Out
Rangers – Out
Devils – Out
Red Wings – Out
Senators – Out

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Sharks – 100 percent
Flames – 100 percent
Jets – 100 percent
Predators – 99.8 percent
Golden Knights – 98.6 percent
Blues – 94.7 percent
Stars – 92.8 percent
Coyotes 64.4 percent
Avalanche – 20.9 percent
Wild – 18.9 percent
Blackhawks – 7.9 percent
Oilers – 1.3 percent
Canucks – 0.7 percent
Ducks – 0 percent
Kings – 0 percent

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators – 18.5 percent*
Red Wings – 13.5 percent
Kings – 11.5 percent
Devils – 9.5 percent
Ducks – 8.5 percent
Canucks – 7.5 percent
Rangers – 6.5 percent
Sabres – 6 percent
Oilers – 5 percent
Blackhawks – 3.5 percent
Avalanche – 3 percent
Wild – 2.5 percent
Panthers – 2 percent
Flyers – 1.5 percent
Canadiens – 1 percent
(*OTT’s 2019 first-round pick owned by COL)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Lightning – 115 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 100 points
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 99 points
Sidney Crosby, Penguins – 92 points
Johnny Gaudreau, Flames – 90 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 46 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 42 goals
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 41 goals
John Tavares, Maple Leafs – 39 goals
Cam Atkinson, Blue Jackets – 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Blackhawks – 38 goals
Brayden Point, Lightning – 38 goals

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.

Mrazek leading the way as Hurricanes seek to end playoff drought

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It’s been pretty good to be Petr Mrazek of late.

The Carolina Hurricanes goaltender has helped the team win six straight starts as they’ve moved into the Metropolitan Division’s third spot, six points behind the first-place Washington Capitals with 13 games to go.

On Monday night, Mrazek’s robbery of Colin Wilson helped preserve a 38-save shutout against the Colorado Avalanche:

“A little bit athletic save maybe,” Mrazek said afterward. “I tried to get the pad and stick. Sometimes those saves are lucky.”

Mrazek, who signed a one-year, $1.5M contract over the summer, and Curtis McElhinney have been the answer in goal for the Hurricanes after Scott Darling failed to rebound following a disastrous 2017-18 season. The pair have helped solve a huge issue that held the team back, with the 27-year-old Czech Republic native grabbing the No. 1 reins of late.

“Everybody is always looking for an opportunity and wants that opportunity,” Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said last week via the News and Observer. “Our goalies have seized it this year and have been our MVPs.”

Since Feb. 1, Mrazek is second among all goaltenders with at least 10 appearances in even strength save percentage (.948) and shutouts (3).

Both McElhinney and Mrazek have not only helped the Hurricanes but also themselves as strong finishes would bode well in possible extension talks or, should they reach July 1 unsigned, unrestricted free agency. Last month, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell told Tom Gullitti of NHL.com that he was approaching the trade deadline looking for “maybe a goalie for down the road,” citing the potential UFA status of both netminders. He stayed pat and it’s their net the rest of the way.

Beyond this season, it might be easy to predict that Mrazek has earned an extension to be back in Carolina, while the soon-to-be 36-year-old McElhinney, a career journeyman, could likely move on to join his eighth NHL team. Both have played above their career averages and regression could be in their future, but for now the Hurricanes are going to ride the wave — one that could take them into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Push for the Playoffs: Hurricanes look to keep climbing standings

Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Carolina Hurricanes have been on a roll over the last few weeks. Outside of an embarrassing 8-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Friday, the ‘Canes have done a great job of collecting points in the standings. That loss to the Jets is the only one they’ve suffered in regulation since Feb. 21. You’d think that this recent surge would put them in a secure spot when it comes to the playoffs, but they haven’t locked anything up just yet.

As of right now, the Hurricanes are sitting in the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference thanks to their 81 points. They’re two points up on Columbus, who owns the second Wild Card spot, and two points up on Montreal, who is out of the postseason picture (Carolina has a game in hand).

Even though tonight’s matchup against Colorado is a non-conference game, it still looms large for both teams. The Avs have their own playoff battle going on, which means they need the points just as much as Carolina does.

Instead of looking behind them, the Hurricanes can also look ahead. Pittsburgh is simply two points ahead. A Carolina win in regulation or overtime would allow them to move in front of the Pens for third in the Metropolitan Division.

“It’s been the story of the year,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said after Saturday’s win over Nashville, per the News & Observer. “We’re a battling team. We’re working hard, but we’re making mistakes just like everyone else. We need big saves at key times, and that’s what we’ve been getting.”

Can the Hurricanes finally get back into the playoffs?

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Lightning at Maple Leafs, 7:00 p.m. ET
Blue Jackets at Islanders , 7:00 p.m. ET
Senators at Flyers, 7:00 p.m. ET
Sharks at Wild, 8:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN, live stream)
Coyotes at Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Hurricanes at Avalanche, 9:00 p.m. ET
Rangers at Oilers, 9:00 p.m. ET

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Lightning – In
Bruins – 100 percent
Maple Leafs – 100 percent
Capitals – 99.7 percent
Islanders – 98.8 percent
Penguins – 96.7 percent
Hurricanes – 88.1 percent
Blue Jackets – 67.5 percent
Canadiens – 42.6 percent
Flyers – 5.4 percent
Panthers – 0.9 percent
Sabres – 0.3 percent
Rangers – 0 percent
Devils – Out
Red Wings – Out
Senators – Out

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Sharks – 100 percent
Flames – 100 percent
Jets – 100 percent
Predators – 99.5 percent
Golden Knights – 99 percent
Blues – 98.6 percent
Stars – 80 percent
Coyotes 44.3 percent
Wild – 40.3 percent
Avalanche – 34.6 percent
Oilers – 2 percent
Blackhawks – 1.7 percent
Canucks – 0.2 percent
Ducks – 0 percent
Kings – 0 percent

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators – 18.5 percent*
Red Wings – 13.5 percent
Kings – 11.5 percent
Devils – 9.5 percent
Ducks – 8.5 percent
Canucks – 7.5 percent
Blackhawks – 6.5 percent
Oilers – 6 percent
Rangers – 5 percent
Sabres – 3.5 percent
Panthers – 3 percent
Avalanche – 2.5 percent
Wild – 2 percent
Flyers – 1.5 percent
Canadiens – 1 percent
(*OTT’s 2019 first-round pick owned by COL)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Lightning – 110 points
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 97 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 96 points
Sidney Crosby, Penguins – 88 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche – 87 points
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 86 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 46 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 40 goals
Cam Atkinson, Blue Jackets – 38 goals
John Tavares, Maple Leafs – 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Blackhawks 37 goals

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.

Hurricanes’ Justin Williams scores with face, then scores with stick

Go to the net and good things will happen. Coaches tell players that all the time with the hope that good positioning will result in a goal. Justin Williams learned that the hard way Thursday night, joining a club that Connor Garland of the Arizona Coyotes entered earlier this season.

As the Carolina Hurricanes continue chasing one of the Eastern Conference’s wild card spots, they visited the Florida Panthers and opened the scoring in unusual fashion.

Just a few minutes into the first period, Brett Pesce sent a shot toward the Panthers’ net and it ended up deflecting off Williams’ face and past James Reimer into the Florida net. Williams, as you see, crumpled to the ice in a scary scene.

Williams would leave the game with blood dripping from his face and return only a few minutes. Later in the game the Hurricanes captain, with a nostril full of gauze, would use his stick to score and snap a 3-3 tie:

That second goal would stand as the winner and give the Hurricanes a 4-3 victory and help them move past the Columbus Blue Jackets for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.