Friday March 27th, 2009

"Not a chance."

That was the frank assessment of Carolina's playoff potential just a couple weeks back. And it came from someone affiliated with the team.

Of course, if he were speaking on the record, he would have offered up the standard "We're still in the hunt. Taking it one game at a time." But given the freedom to voice his honest opinion, well, there was no reason to fake enthusiasm for a team that appeared to be headed for a third straight DNQ.

Not that the Hurricanes were bad. They were like most teams living on the fringes of playoff contention: inconsistent. Night to night, you didn't know what you'd get from them. Every time you thought they'd turned the corner -- a gutsy 4-3 win in San Jose in early February seemed like a good building block -- they'd follow up with a couple of limp efforts (losing at home 5-0 to the Panthers and 5-1 to the Blue Jackets).

With six weeks to go, the Hurricanes entered March like lambs. Amazingly, they're about to leave it like lions.

While Eastern contenders Montreal, Florida and Buffalo seem content to wait for their opponents to take two steps back, Carolina's making bold strides forward. The Canes have tied their franchise record with nine consecutive home victories, and have a chance to break it on Thursday against the Rangers. If they win on Saturday in New Jersey, their 10-1-2 month will go down as the best March in club history.

While top contenders like Boston and Washington struggle down the stretch, the Hurricanes finally discovered that extra gear, setting themselves up to be a team no one really wants to face in the first round.

No one should compare this group to the one that won the Stanley Cup in 2006, at least not yet, but there's reason to believe it could enjoy a productive spring. For one, Cam Ward's been magnificent, starting 22 straight and putting up the best numbers of his career.

"He was always technically sound, but I really like the way he battles," said an Eastern Conference scout. "You can see his lateral movement has improved . . . [and so has] his rebound control. He's not looked on as one of the real elite goalies because there's nothing spectacular about his game. But, you know, he's won it all before. That tells you all you need to know about his ability to compete."

The forward group is nowhere near as imposing as the one from 2006, when the Canes featured three legitimate scoring lines. But since the deadline acquisition of Erik Cole, the offense has more balance. They're not just scoring more often -- 50 goals so far this month -- there's more grit and speed, two measures that were clearly lacking earlier in the season. Cole gets some of the credit for that, and for helping offensive centerpiece Eric Staal find the consistency that was lacking in his game. So does Tuomo Ruutu, who has become the wrecking ball that Andrew Ladd never was.

And then there's Rod Brind'Amour. The captain was under heavy fire, and deservedly so, for his play much of the season. Speed and defensive intensity, the two hallmarks of his career, seemed to have vanished from his repertoire in the wake of a September procedure on his left knee. A 29-game goalless drought and a minus-27 rating made the case that the captain was ready to be put out to pasture, but the 38-year-old has finally rounded into form over the last month. He's got the old jump in his legs, he's a plus-player since the calendar turned, and he remains among the best in the faceoff circle.

But the key to Carolina's turnaround is at the blueline. Joe Corvo, Joni Pitkanen and Anton Babchuk lack the defensive presence of Aaron Ward, Mike Commodore and Bret Hedican from the glory season, but they boast the transition skills and ability to shoot the puck that their predecessors lacked. And that's what makes them the ideal complement to this forward group. They not only get the offense kick-started from the back end, their deficiencies force the forwards to be more conscious of their own defensive responsibilities. It's an odd but effective symbiotic relationship that has them within a point of fourth place in the East.

With just six games left on the schedule, it's unlikely they will catch the Flyers and grab home ice in the first round. But you have to say this about the revived Hurricanes: they've got a chance.

Coming from almost any other owner, the soothing reassurances of job security would be a signal to a struggling coach that he ought to start boxing up the fine china and asking friends to recommend a reliable mover. But when Tom Hicks said the job of Stars bench boss Dave Tippett was safe, there was reason to believe that his words can be taken at face value.

"In hockey, you always worry about if the coach has lost the team," Hicks told the Dallas Morning News in the middle of a losing streak that has all but ended the team's playoff hopes. "Dave Tippett has not lost this team."

In 2007, media and fans questioned Hicks about the job of Liverpool coach, Rafael Benitez. Hicks, who controls the English Premier League club with Canadiens owner George Gillett, gave Benitez his full public backing despite a disappointing showing in the Champions League. He was true to his word. Benitez remains with the side and today has Liverpool in the quarter-finals of the same tournament.

Reviled as a clueless meddler by fans of baseball's Texas Rangers, Hicks deserves credit for leaving the hockey and football decisions to men savvier than he. The reality is that, despite the Stars' record, Tippett deserves Jack Adams consideration for keeping them in the hunt despite a calamitous string of injuries to core players like Brenden Morrow, Sergei Zubov, Jere Lehtinen and Brad Richards. But since he won't win the hardware for top coach, he deserves a consolation prize -- one of the coaching spots with Team Canada at the World Championships in April. With former boss Doug Armstrong calling the shots, it's hard to imagine him not getting a call.

A nutty idea

One more interesting nugget to be gleaned from that DMN interview with Hicks: the Stars are not finished paying the price for the Sean Avery debacle. The owner stated that as long as he's footing the bill, his team will never sign another free agent without doing psychological testing.


Guess that means Dallas will have to fill some pretty apparent needs on the blueline with everyone else's leftovers this summer. No matter how much they're offered, it's hard to imagine any agent telling his big name client to put off other deals while they lay down on the couch and interpret Rorschach patterns for the Stars. With cap constriction looming, teams only have so much money to go around, so free agents will be looking to make deals quickly before the competition that swells the pot dies down.

With the Stars likely to fail in their playoff bid, they'll need to make a big summer splash to generate some buzz next fall. If Hicks wants to sell tickets, he needs to drop this codicil quickly.

Canada seeking revenge

Returning to the subject of the World Championships, the Canadians should be able to load up on forwards from non-playoff sides, but might have to wait until the first round is over before stocking the blueline. Hoping to avenge last year's gold medal game OT loss to the Russians, Team Canada's tournament gets underway April 24 against Belarus in Zurich, Switzerland.

Among the frontliners they could have at their disposal: Bryan Little (ATL), Derek Roy (BUF), Ryan Smyth (COL), Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott (DAL), Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher and Dany Heatley (OTT), Shane Doan and Matthew Lombardi (PHO), Brad Boyes (STL), and Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos (TB).

The defense looks considerably less imposing. Stephane Robidas (DAL) and Ed Jovanovski (PHO) should be locks. Kyle Quincey and Drew Doughty (LA) should earn consideration, as will Barret Jackman (STL), Paul Ranger (TB) and Luke Schenn (TOR). If his foot heals, Cory Murphy (FLA) might also get a call.

Chris Mason of the Blues is likely to be Canada's starter, with the Stars' Marty Turco possible as a backup. Mike Smith of the Lightning is deserving of a supporting spot if he gets medical clearance for the concussion that's sidelined him since Jan. 31.

Sweet notes

The best news to emerge so far from the Worlds? Krokus has reunited!

The greatest metal band in Swiss history (suck it, Celtic Frost!) has penned Live For the Action, its first original tune in 20 years, as the tournament's anthem. You can download the song at along with eight others composed for the event, including Stand Up For Hockey by Willy Tell and Sini Bueba, and Set The Ice On Fire by Newland and Friends. Apparently renowned yodeler Joe Juneau didn't get his submission in on time . . .

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