There’s flickering hope for the Carolina Hurricanes’ playoff chances after a strong effort in their latest game, but their overall play since the Olympic break hardly inspires confidence that more are on the way.
They might not need to be at their best to get two points against their next opponent.
The Hurricanes look to win consecutive games for the first time since January when they host the woeful Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.
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Carolina (28-28-9) went into the break as part of a cluster of six teams that were within three points of the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed, but they’re now eight points out of playoff position with five teams to leapfrog.
The Hurricanes dropped six of seven out of the break, starting with a 3-2 loss in Buffalo on Feb. 25 in which they outshot the Sabres 38-18. Coach Kirk Muller said he found no fault in Carolina’s performance, giving credit to Buffalo’s Ryan Miller for stealing two points for his team.
Muller and the Hurricanes won’t have to worry about facing the since-traded Miller on Thursday, and they’ll come in with some confidence after getting the best of another Olympic goaltender on Tuesday. Jordan Staal and Jiri Tlusty each had a goal and an assist in the second period as Carolina beat Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers 3-1, avenging a loss to New York four days earlier.
"I think we played a really strong 60 minutes of hockey," Muller said. "There was still a lot of fighting with these guys. … Hopefully tonight is that big win that we build on."
If the Hurricanes want to make any noise down the stretch, they could start by getting their power play going. Carolina is 1 for 31 with the man advantage since the Olympics, a league-worst 3.2 percent.
Getting some decent goaltending from Cam Ward wouldn’t hurt, either. Suffering through his second straight injury-plagued and ineffective season, Ward stopped 24 shots on Tuesday – his first start since before Thanksgiving without allowing at least three goals.
"We’ve worked too hard to give up. It’s not in our favor right now, but anything can happen," Ward told the team’s official website. "It’s still important to have that belief in the locker room."
With Miller, Matt Moulson and Steve Ott among the names dealt at the deadline, the Sabres (19-38-8) have leveled off after winning three of four out of the Olympic break. They’ve totaled two goals in three consecutive defeats, going quiet for the final 57:51 in Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Nashville after Drew Stafford’s early power-play goal.
Buffalo now begins a stretch of seven of eight on the road, and it’ll play 12 of its final 17 away from home.
"It’s a time for us to really come together as a team," Stafford said. "We’re going to be spending a lot of time together in close quarters. It’s going to be up to us to drag ourselves out of this."
If the Sabres want to beat the Hurricanes again, they can start by stopping Eric Staal. Carolina’s captain has four goals and five assists in his last five games against Buffalo, and he’s recorded three points in each of the Hurricanes’ three straight home wins in the series.