Considering no more than two Southeast Division teams have ever made the playoffs in a single season, fourth place has typically been the NHL’s version of exile.
In a division potentially deeper than it’s ever been, the Carolina Hurricanes are looking pretty good.
The Hurricanes find themselves just a few points outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture after three straight wins, a streak they’ll look to extend Monday night as they try to continue their home dominance of the Florida Panthers.
This is the 13th season the Southeast has existed, but it’s never produced three playoff clubs.
That might be about to change in 2010-11. Tampa Bay, Washington and Atlanta all currently occupy playoff spots, with Carolina (18-15-4) starting to look like a playoff team as well. The Hurricanes are ninth in the conference, four points behind slumping Montreal for eighth place.
If the offense continues producing like it has lately, Carolina might be in the top eight soon. The Hurricanes have scored 14 goals during their three-game winning streak, including three power-play tallies in a 6-3 win over New Jersey on Saturday.
“We kept it simple … and when we’ve kept it simple, we’ve scored a lot of goals,” said winger Tuomo Ruutu(notes), who has two goals and six assists in his last four games. “When you spend a lot of time in their defensive end, they’re not going to score as many goals.”
Ruutu had a goal and an assist on the power play against the Devils, helping Carolina improve to 5 for 12 with the man advantage during the past three games.
Jeff Skinner(notes) doesn’t have a power-play point in that stretch, but he did score twice versus New Jersey. The 18-year-old center, selected seventh overall in the 2010 entry draft, has 11 goals - second on the team behind star Eric Staal(notes).
“He’s playing like he trying to prove that he can play center ice in the NHL,” coach Paul Maurice said of Skinner, “and it looks like he’s going to be able to do it.”
Skinner recorded a goal and three assists in wins over Florida (17-17-2) on Nov. 6 and Dec. 15, though he was shut out in a 7-4 road loss Nov. 5. Ruutu scored twice in the third period of last month’s meeting, helping the Hurricanes turn a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 victory.
The Panthers are last place in the Southeast - four points behind Carolina - but they’ve also shown signs of improvement in recent weeks. Florida is 4-1-2 in its last seven games after a 3-0 win over the New York Rangers on Sunday - Tomas Vokoun’s(notes) league high-tying fifth shutout.
The Panthers got back to .500 for the first time since they were 9-9-0 on Nov. 20.
Vokoun hasn’t been alone in his struggles in Raleigh. Florida is 2-17-2 at the RBC Center since Feb. 16, 2004.