Carolina’s annual all-or-nothing playoff prayer

Eric Staal says the 'Canes believe they "can beat anyone" in the playoffs, but concedes they're usually in a dogfight down the stretch just to make it in.
(Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

It was September. Jeff Skinner(notes) was just a peach-cheeked rookie playing in a prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich. Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford was looking forward to training camp, thinking he had a good, young group set up to succeed in the long term – and that maybe, if some of that youth was precocious enough, it could compete for a playoff spot this season.

“And we know what our team does once we get in the playoffs,” Rutherford said then. “Once we get in, we’re very capable of having a good run.”

Now here are the Hurricanes on the brink, ninth in the Eastern Conference, four points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers and five behind the seventh-place Buffalo Sabres. With three games to go, they have a game in hand on each.

Beat the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night, and at least the Hurricanes can put some pressure on their competitors. Squeak into the playoffs, and yes, anything can happen – especially with a goaltender like Cam Ward(notes), who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player in 2006 and has made more than 2,000 saves this season. The last three times the Hurricanes have made the playoffs, these have been the results: Stanley Cup final, Stanley Cup championship, Eastern Conference final.

“If we can just get in, I think we have a core of guys that have gone far in the playoffs and have that experience and possibly might carry us a long way,” said defenseman Tim Gleason(notes), who experienced a conference final with the Hurricanes himself in 2009. “It showed two years ago that we could do that, and I believe we can do the same thing. If we can just get in, we have the possibility of being a dangerous team.”

Carolina's future looks bright, especially after the breakout season of teenage rookie Jeff Skinner.
(Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

If we can just get in …

But therein lies the problem. The Hurricanes haven’t gotten in often in their history, and though the future looks bright – thanks largely to Skinner, hockey’s Justin Bieber, with 29 goals, 58 points and squealing female fans at age 18 – this team still operates with a limited budget and the competition for playoff spots should only increase in the years to come. If the Hurricanes have a chance to get in, they can’t afford to let it slip away – and they might have let it slip away already this season.

Look back at their past eight seasons, and the Hurricanes have made those three deep runs while missing the playoffs altogether five times – going to the Cup final in 2002, then rebuilding; winning the Cup in 2006, then rebuilding; going to the conference final in 2009, then continuing to reshape. They have been both efficient and frustrating.

Look at the 13 seasons they have played since the Hartford Whalers moved to North Carolina, and they have finished ninth in the East three times and missed the playoffs by four points or fewer three times. Both could happen again. Their remaining schedule (Red Wings, at Atlanta Thrashers, Tampa Bay Lightning) is more difficult than the Rangers’ (Thrashers, New Jersey Devils) and Sabres’ (Philadelphia, at Columbus).

“I think when we get into the playoffs, we’ve got that mentality where we can beat anyone and we’re comfortable in that role of a lot of times being the spoilers,” said captain Eric Staal(notes), who joined the Hurricanes in 2003-04. “Obviously it’s a dogfight to get into the playoffs, and it has been since I’ve been here, except for the year we won (the Cup) when we were cruising a little bit.”

Just getting to this point has been impressive, to be sure. The budget and expectations were low entering the season, and a brutal early schedule threatened to crush the Hurricanes’ playoff hopes immediately. The ’Canes opened the season in Helsinki, Finland, with two games against the Minnesota Wild. Then they traveled to Ottawa, Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix. When they returned from their world tour, their first two home games were against the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins – sandwiched around another road game against the Rangers. Emerging from that first month 5-5 was a victory in itself.

With 2006 playoff MVP Cam Ward in net, the Hurricanes have a great base upon which to build.
(Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

When a three-game losing streak threatened to become a four-gamer in late December, Rutherford burst into the dressing room during the second intermission of a game in Toronto. A 3-3 tie turned into a 4-3 victory over the Maple Leafs, sparking a 6-0-2 run that put the Hurricanes back into playoff contention.

But the ups and downs continued. The Hurricanes alternated wins and losses with regularity. Recently, they followed a 1-4-1 slump with a 6-1 run, only to suffer a critical 2-1 overtime loss Sunday to the Sabres that cost them control of their fate. That’s what it could come down to for the Hurricanes – boom or bust, decided by a couple of bounces – leaving them to wonder about points they left on the table earlier.

“Even though at the time you think, ‘Well, we should be all right,’ down the stretch, at the end of the day, you need those games,” Gleason said.

And that isn’t going to change. The Hurricanes have Ward and Staal and Skinner. They have hope. But almost everybody has hope six years into the salary-cap era. The Thrashers were hot early in the season. The Maple Leafs, Devils and even the Islanders got hot late in the season. All trail the Hurricanes today, but who knows next season?

Are the teams in front of the Hurricanes going to slip? The Sabres have a new owner pledging to spend money. The Rangers have plenty of money to spend themselves, and they already have a young, scrappy, shot-blocking group that rallied from a 3-0 deficit for a huge 5-3 victory Monday night over the Boston Bruins. Staal texted Rangers defenseman Marc Staal(notes), one of his brothers, after the game in disbelief and dismay.

“No profanity in the text,” Staal said, “but it wasn’t the nicest.”

Can’t imagine it was. Someone seized the day, and it wasn’t the ’Canes.

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Apr 6, 2011