SAINT PAUL, Minn. — A week ago, the Carolina Hurricanes were the feel-good story of the NHL, having rallied from the basement of their division to contend for a playoff spot.
Heading into their final Western Conference road game on Tuesday, the Hurricanes are just another team looking at an early spring.
The Hurricanes come to Minnesota to face the Wild having lost their last two in a row, pushing them to the brink of elimination. The mini skid followed a streak in which Carolina went 9-0-4.
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If the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators each collect one more point in the season’s final week, Carolina will head home for the summer.
Still, even with the team’s fate all but sealed, there are signs of optimism for Carolina. Most prominent is the impending return of forward Bryan Bickell, who is expected to play in an NHL game Tuesday for the first time since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in early November. He skated in 10 games for the Hurricanes’ AHL team in Charlotte recently, and he gives the coaches another reason for positive attitudes.
The Hurricanes (35-29-14) lost 3-2 in Pittsburgh on Sunday, but an upbeat coach Bill Peters said afterward, “Real good effort. Did a real good job, one goal short. Guys played hard and they’ve been playing hard for a while now. That won’t change going forward. We started on time and did a good job there. The start was fine, the effort was fine, we just needed one more.”
They got one goal from defenseman Justin Faulk, giving him 17 for the season — the most recorded by a Carolina blue-liner since the team relocated from Hartford 20 years ago. Faulk will return to his home state to face a Minnesota team that clinched a playoff spot last week — the fifth in as many years for the Wild — but had an overall lousy March and is looking to solidify things before the postseason begins.
All but assured of a first-round meeting with the St. Louis Blues, the Wild (46-25-8) have won two out of their last three. After seeing too many pucks in their net for long stretches last month, their goaltending situation has solidified to the point where popular backup Alex Stalock was sent back down to their Iowa AHL team on Monday, reaffirming that the job belongs to Devan Dubnyk for the long haul.
“I think the nicest thing is to get some shots, to get a feel for the puck,” said Dubnyk, who had 30 saves in a 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday. Stalock had started the two previous games, and there was plenty of talk that a goalie controversy was brewing in Minnesota, but Dubnyk brushed it off.
“I wasn’t concerned about it,” Dubnyk said. “Everybody else seemed to be. It’s an opportunity. There are a few opportunities left to touch the puck a bit and feel good about things and get a couple more wins before the end of the year.”
These teams only face each other twice a year, and they will play for the second time in three weeks on Tuesday. The Hurricanes scored late on March 16 in Raleigh to win 3-1. This time around, the Wild will honor forward Eric Staal for his 1,000 NHL games milestone set last month. Several members of the Staal family are expected on hand for the ceremony, including Eric’s brother Jordan, who skates for the Hurricanes.