RALEIGH A sense of panic surrounding the Carolina Hurricanes’ playoff prospects is as much a regular part of mid-February as steady rain or Valentine’s Day. Their fans have too much practice at this part of it. It’s almost a reflex. Or a habit.
There’s nothing new whatsoever about being two points out of a playoff spot on a Thursday morning two-thirds of the way through the season. It is completely novel, however, for the Hurricanes to be in that position despite being on a 98-point pace.
To put that into perspective, they were the first wild card in the East with 99 points last year, and 98 points would have gotten them into a playoff spot in each of the 10 years of the playoff drought that ended last spring. And still, the Hurricanes are on the outside looking in at the moment.
It’s hard to reconcile the sense of doom that accompanied the terrible performance in St. Louis that kicked off the Hurricanes’ up-and-down four-game road trip with every other usual marker used to assess overall NHL performance — which on paper remain generally, if not unanimously, commendable — but the overwhelmingly familiar part of this is that same old feeling that every bad loss will be the fatal one when the numbers are totaled in April.
The unfortunate reality that the Hurricanes haven’t quite been on their game with the same consistency over the last month — at a time when there’s no room for slippage — has everyone from the front office to the front row on edge.
“It’s just been … blah,” Hurricanes forward Justin Williams said, searching for the right word and not really finding it
There’s a brutal irony here: The Hurricanes have scratched and clawed to dig themselves out of mediocrity and put together a contending team, only to find themselves with as little margin for error as ever. Less, even. It’s like a hockey treadmill that keeps going faster.
In this case, the Hurricanes are objectively a playoff-caliber team but subjectively in big trouble, thanks to a screwy playoff format and a Metropolitan Division heavily overloaded with elite teams it has its own gravitational pull.
The Hurricanes went into Thursday’s games 13th in the entire NHL but sixth in their own division, two points out of the last Eastern Conference wild card. In the Western Conference, they’d have home-ice advantage. In the Pacific Division, they’d be two points out of first place, instead of fighting for their playoff lives. In real life, they’re at risk of being left at home entirely despite having the sixth-best goal differential in the entire NHL.
So while normally this is the point in the season where a veteran like Williams would give the Aaron Rodgers “relax” speech, he knows the situation is as fraught with peril as it has so often been here at this point in the season.
“We don’t feel good with where we’re at,” Williams said. “We’re out of the playoffs, so we shouldn’t feel good. We’ve raised the level, I guess, the bar, where we don’t want to be in a playoff race, but we want to be battling for the league’s best. Mentally, that’s one of the things this team has. Now we’ve got to instill it out there, because it’s just been average. Just OK is not OK.”
The good news, such as it is, is that the Hurricanes play 12 of their final 26 against division opponents, starting Friday night against New Jersey. That gives them the opportunity to make up some ground, but at the expense of a substantially stronger strength of schedule the rest of the way.
“Arguably, our division’s the best in hockey, so it’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Is it imperative? Yes, no matter who we’re playing at this time of the year, but now the competition is as good as it’s going to get.”
There is, as ever, no margin for error. The Hurricanes have gotten so much better and yet, somehow, through no fault of their own, they’re in the same familiar place.