Fighting for their playoff lives in the middle of March, the Carolina Hurricanes knew that if they were going to qualify for the postseason they’d need a strong finish.
They’re two wins away from making it a perfect one.
The red-hot Hurricanes are now eyeing home-ice advantage in the first round, and they’ll try to take a big step toward that Thursday night when they look for their franchise-record 10th consecutive win overall and 13th straight at the RBC Center in their regular-season home finale against the Buffalo Sabres.
Those nine wins in a row have Carolina (45-28-7) in the mix for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and home ice would be a big plus for coach Paul Maurice’s club. The Hurricanes have won a franchise-record 12 straight in their own building, and set a few records in their latest home game.
Eric Staal had three goals and an assist Tuesday - his team-record fourth hat trick of the season - against the New York Islanders to lead Carolina’s 9-0 romp, the worst loss in New York’s history and a win that tied the Hurricanes with Philadelphia for fourth place.
“We’re playing the right way. We’re playing at a high, competitive level, and we’re playing like a well-oiled machine,” Staal said after scoring for the third straight game. “When you’re confident and when you’re doing the right things, you’re going to get good results and nights like tonight.”
The nine-game streak matched the mark reached twice by the 2005-06 team that won the Stanley Cup, and Tuesday goaltender Cam Ward notched his team-record 39th win, breaking the mark for victories set by that season’s starter, Martin Gerber, before Ward supplanted him on his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Ward’s sixth shutout also matched a Hurricanes record.
“It’s great, but the most important thing is that we’re playing some good hockey right now,” said Ward, who had a 1.28 goals-against average in winning his last seven starts. “We want to be peaking when we go into the playoffs, and now with two games left, it’s important that we bear down and have a similar effort like we did tonight.”
The Flyers have a game in hand on Carolina in the race for home ice, but Buffalo (39-32-9) would settle for simply entering the East’s top eight.
That looked rather unlikely heading into a game Wednesday at Toronto, as the Sabres trailed the eighth-place New York Rangers by six points with three games to play. Buffalo, though, pulled two points closer and stayed in contention for the final spot with a 3-1 win.
“That’s what we wanted, just to stay alive, stay in this and put the pressure on the other teams,” said right winger Jason Pominville, who had a goal and an assist. “We have to look at our side of things and that’s winning games and it starts with one and we’ve got to build off this.”
Buffalo will have to beat the red-hot Hurricanes and also East-best Boston to have a chance to sneak in, but it’ll also need help from Philadelphia. The Rangers play the Flyers twice to close their season, and the Sabres will need two regulation victories from Philadelphia to stay alive.
On their own end, they could also use a standout effort from Ryan Miller. The veteran goaltender, who missed 13 games with a high ankle sprain, had allowed at least three goals in all six games since he returned.
Miller was pulled in his latest start against Carolina after allowing two goals in the first period in a 3-0 loss in Buffalo on Feb. 15,. Staal had a goal and two assists for the Hurricanes.
Carolina has beaten the Sabres three straight times at the RBC Center, including a 2-1 shootout win on Feb. 26. Ward stopped 36 shots in that victory, the same number he had in his shutout 11 days earlier.