Five points back, seven games remaining. This is what the Carolina Hurricanes' season has come to.
But if Carolina can win two sets of back-to-back games, which would match its longest winning streak of this up-and-down season, then the team has a chance to displace the Buffalo Sabres from the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Hurricanes visit the streaking Washington Capitals tonight and host the slumping Montreal Canadiens Wednesday. Then they visit Long Island for a Saturday night matchup with the eliminated Islanders before hosting the Sabres on Sunday evening in a 5:00pm game.
Buffalo, meanwhile, needs to help out the Canes by losing some games, and they might be vulnerable. They visit the hungry Maple Leafs tonight before hosting the New York Rangers Wednesday. Then they skate with the Capitals Saturday night before scooting down to Raleigh on Sunday. Three of those four games are on the road.
It's difficult to state the importance of the upcoming Sabres game. Three Canes wins this week and the Sunday game is huge. Anything less than that, and the Canes will be playing out the string.
Carolina had hoped to sweep a home-at-home series with the Tampa Bay Lightning this past weekend but fell further behind Buffalo with Saturday's 4-2 loss in Florida. Since losing in Raleigh by a 1-0 score on Mar. 15, the Sabres have 9 of a possible 10 points, producing goals from every part of their lineup and finding their defensive groove as well. Two of their last three wins have come via shutout.
But before Carolina can think about Buffalo, they have to devote all their focus to the Capitals, who will be going for a sweep of the six-game season series with the Canes. The Capitals have reinvented themselves over the last couple of months, establishing a more defensively responsible game while bolstering their special teams with the addition of gritty forward Jason Arnott. Captain Alex Ovechkin has sat out the last handful of games with an undisclosed injury, but returned to practice yesterday and is anticipated to be on the ice to face the Canes tonight.
The season series with Washington provides an apt portrait of the Carolina season, which could carry the caption "If we just had a little more scoring..." After dropping their home opener 3-0 to the Capitals before Halloween, the Canes have fallen short of Washington by one goal in each of four more losses.
This is the difference between a team challenging for the conference's top seed and one on the playoff fringe. Washington is fine-tuning their game as their real season is just beginning. And the Canes are trying to keep the walls from closing in.