The question has been asked all season long: Are the Carolina Hurricanes a playoff team? We may have the answer in the next few days.
Currently occupying the ninth spot in the Eastern Conference, the Canes trail the seventh-place Buffalo Sabres and eighth-place New York Rangers by four points. But Atlanta and Toronto sit just two points behind them—in other words, one win. Even more daunting, the New Jersey Devils—they of the best record in hockey since the calendar turned to 2011—are just four points back and still maintaining their frantic pace.
Here are the current standings around the playoff cusp:
|Place||Team||Games left||Points||Last 10||Streak|
|8||NY Rangers||12||76||5-5-0||Won 1|
|12||New Jersey||14||68||8-2-0||Won 2|
In last weekend's games, which stretched Carolina's losing streak to four straight, the Canes failed on all fourteen power plays, including nine against Columbus, which added insult to incompetence by opening the game with a shorthanded goal. For the most part, these were not power plays during which the Canes peppered a superhuman goalie with shots from all angles. Carolina seems unable to figure out how to enter their opponent's zone with the man advantage.
If the Canes try to skate it in, they turn it over just inside the blueline and surrender a shorthanded chance because their other skaters get trapped in the opponent's zone. If they dump the puck, their chasers flood the zone too late too repossess the puck on the forecheck and it's an easy clear for the other team.
Could it be only twelve nights ago that the Canes earned a stirring overtime victory at home against the very Sabres that have now blown past them in the standings? These same Sabres that host the Canes tonight on national television with a chance to put their foot on Carolina's throat?
The week doesn't get easier. The Canes sprint back to Raleigh to face plucky Toronto Wednesday night. Then the New York Islanders, who haven't sniffed the playoffs since 2007 but own the second best record in the east since New Year's, visit on Friday.
Carolina doesn't just need two of three of these games. They need all three, and in regulation to boot. Surrendering even an overtime point to Buffalo and Toronto would be a kind of failure.
It's not a comforting fact that the Canes have only strung together more than a pair of wins just three times this year, and that their scoring confidence seems to have vanished at the worst possible time. They're not finding the answers on the ice right now.
Does that answer the season-long question? Let's hope not.