RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—If they can just get in, then anything can happen.
Cam Ward stopped all 42 Detroit shots for his fourth shutout of the year, and Jeff Skinner became one of the youngest players of all time to reach the 30-goal mark in a season. Derek Joslin and Erik Cole also scored goals. Captain Eric Staal assisted on all three Canes scores as the team continued to play its best when it needs it the most.
Playoff scenarios simplify as each game's result goes in the books, but there are still a handful of ways for the Canes to make the postseason. The clearest is for Carolina to win their remaining games in Atlanta on Friday and back home against Tampa Bay on Saturday night. If Carolina wins out, and the Rangers go either 1-1-0, 0-1-1 or 0-0-2, or the Sabres go 0-0-2, then the Canes squeeze them out for eighth.
There are scenarios by which the Canes could get in if they suffer one more loss, but the Rangers would have to lose their remaining pair of games with Atlanta and New Jersey, both of which have nothing but pride to play for. Not bloody likely.
The Canes began Wednesday's tilt skating hard but gripping their sticks a bit too tight. Shots were passed up, passes missed the mark, and the Wings pelted Ward with 18 shots. His counterpart, Jimmy Howard, was also sharp, stopping heavy drives by Joslin and Joe Corvo on an early power play. When Staal deftly tipped a Jussi Jokinen shot on a late man-advantage, the puck riding up the shaft of his stick, Howard juggled the unpredictable shot in heavy traffic but kept it in front of himself and covered it.
Erik Cole, who rocketed around the rink all night, made Niklas Lidstrom look like the statue that someday will stand outside Joe Louis Arena on a rush, passing to himself off the boards to go in alone. Howard, however, shouldered a rising shot aside.
Ward was even better, foiling several good chances by Justin Abdelkader. On a line with Dan Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi that was effective for much of the game, the winger fought off Bryan Allen to rush in on net, but Ward stood his ground. A frantic scrum in the crease with under three minutes left culminated with the puck in the net, but the officials emphatically waved off the goal, having already blown the whistle.
After the scoreless first period, the Canes took over the game. Skinner's first shift of the middle frame set the tone, as he stickhandled through a baffled Cleary in the slot to stun Howard with a high shot to the shoulder. Minutes later, Skinner drew his league-leading 43rd penalty, setting up Joslin's first goal as a Hurricane and second of his career. Walking toward the point after Cory Stillman threw the puck up the boards, Joslin's low shot flew inside the post before Howard could lunge over and the Canes led 1-0.
The teams traded good chances each minute of the period. Skinner redirected a Jokinen shot a couple minutes after Joslin's goal, but Howard closed his pads on it despite being in motion across the goal mouth. Eight minutes in, Cleary collected a rebound beside a sprawled Ward and spun to fling a shot at an open net, but the puck went just wide.
Skinner's goal capped an odd sequence in the final two minutes. First, Pavel Datsyuk carried the puck down the wing, shedding two Canes to close on Ward. His sharply rising shot appeared as if it might have hit the underside of the top of the goal, in under the crossbar, and bounced out, but there was no signal and play continued. The play was not later reviewed.
A minute later, Staal carried the puck into Detroit's zone and hesitated to allow Skinner to enter with speed. Staal's shot required Howard to commit to the near side of the net, and Skinner scampered behind the net to shovel the puck in before Howard could dive back. The Canes led 2-0.
Skinner skated away, smiling broadly with his arms raised. Only names like Steve Yzerman, Dale Hawerchuk, and Sidney Crosby have hit 30 goals at a younger age. Skinner has reached the mark before even Wayne Gretzky did.
As the game moved to the third, Drayson Bowman gave the Wings an opportunity to get back into the mix, committing a four-minute highsticking penalty to Cleary. Detroit's assault was fierce, featuring a hard slapper from Brian Rafalski and a charge from the corner by Johan Franzen, but Ward fended everything off coolly.
Then, on a rush up ice as the penalty expired, Staal and Cole finished the Wings off. As a loose 3-on-2 was forming, Staal drove the middle of the ice and tossed to Cole on the right wing. His no-hesitation shot burrowed past Howard's glove, and the Canes led 3-0.
The one-two punch of the double penalty kill and the stunning goal subdued the Wings. All the business left to conduct was Ward's shutout, which was clinched with three minutes remaining as he padded away Franzen's last chance in the crease.
The Wings, who clinched a high seed in the West some time ago, had bigger concerns than a mark in the loss column. Leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg left the game and didn't return after being felled by Allen along the boards in the first period. The team said the injury was to his lower body but did not note its severity.
Carolina turns its attention to the Rangers' contest with Atlanta Thursday night before visiting the Thrashers on Friday. They're not out of it yet.