The Southeast Division race is so crowded that the Carolina Hurricanes feel like the playoffs have already started.
The Hurricanes will be trying to regain sole possession of first place in the division on Thursday when they host the Atlantic Division-leading Pittsburgh Penguins.
Carolina (28-27-4) enters this game in a three-way tie with Atlanta and Washington for first place in the Southeast. The Hurricanes were alone in first place following Tuesday’s 3-2 win in Boston, but the Thrashers and Capitals each gained ground in Atlanta’s 3-2 shootout win over Washington on Wednesday.
“We’re battling for a playoff spot,” said Sergei Samsonov, who scored against the Bruins. “For us, it’s almost a playoff game.”
Florida is just two points out of first place in the Southeast. However, it will likely take a first-place finish for any of the teams in the lackluster division to reach the postseason, as the Panthers are currently in 12th place in the Eastern Conference.
Andrew Ladd scored two first-period goals on Tuesday for Carolina, which wrapped up a 2-3-0 road trip. The Hurricanes play eight of their next nine at home, where they are 13-11-2.
“Fortunately, we were able to prevail—even though it got a little interesting,” said goalie Cam Ward, who yielded a pair of goals in the final period.
Now, the Hurricanes will be up against a Pittsburgh team that has surged to the top of the Atlantic despite being without star forward Sidney Crosby. In 11 games without Crosby, the Penguins are 6-3-2.
Carolina has won three straight at home against the Penguins (32-20-5), outscoring them 13-5 in those three games. However, the Hurricanes have dropped their last two meetings with Pittsburgh, both on the road, after winning five of six overall.
Pittsburgh ended a three-game winning streak on Wednesday, falling 2-1 to Boston. Evgeni Malkin scored in the third period and has five goals and 11 assists during a six-game point streak.
Malkin has been a big part of Pittsburgh’s recent surge, moving to center on the team’s top line and picking up nine goals and 13 assists in Crosby’s absence. He is tied with Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier both for second in the league with 74 points and for sixth with 32 goals.
However, Malkin managed just one shot until the third period as the Bruins put defenseman Zdeno Chara on him nearly every time he took the ice. Chara was named the game’s No. 1 star despite not getting a point.
“The first period was one of the worst we’ve played this year,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “Right now we are relying on our first line, Malkin’s line to carry the team. We can’t expect to score three to four goals a night. It is not going to happen. Right now, our depth players aren’t chipping in.”
Malkin had a goal and two assists in Pittsburgh’s last meeting with Carolina, a 4-1 home win on Feb. 2.
Pittsburgh, which wrapped up a four-game homestand, has dropped three of four on the road.