In the end, it came down to a deft deflection by Nic Dowd. Skating across the front of the Hurricanes’ crease, the Washington Capitals center got the tip of his blade on a Nick Jensen wrister and changed the direction of the puck just enough for it to squeak between the legs of Carolina keeper Curtis McElhinney. Dowd's goal was the game winner in a tight one and helped the Capitals clinch a playoff berth.
But it also highlighted something else.
On Thursday, despite the two teams being separated by nine points in the standings, we got a glimpse of how talented the Hurricanes are and how thin the margin between Carolina and Washington might just be. In what ended a 3-2 victory for the Capitals, the Hurricanes held a one-goal lead entering the third period, finished the contest with a 26-22 advantage in shots on goal and at 5-on-5, Carolina exited the game with a favorable Corsi rate (51.1 percent), shots rate (53.7 percent), scoring chance rate (57.8 percent) and high-danger chance rate (57.1 percent). This to say that Thursday’s meeting was exactly as close as the scoreboard suggested.
Why is that important? Well, for a couple reasons. First, it proved that this Carolina team can hang with playoff-bound clubs and that they’re deserving of snapping the nine-season playoff drought that has hung like a cloud over the franchise since the final season of current coach Rob Brind’Amour’s playing days. But second, and more importantly, it proved that if these two teams were to meet in the first round of the post-season, the defending Stanley Cup champion and current Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals would be the favorite, but not prohibitively so. Carolina showed they can make a series of it, possibly even pushing Washington to its limit or turning the tables and crushing the back-to-back title dream before it can really gain any momentum.
When looking at the wild-card contenders, too, that might be the one thing that separates this Hurricanes team from most of the clubs included in the same category. Entering the homestretch, there are seven teams – the Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild – who are right in the thick of wild-card races as the season draws to its conclusion, but which of those clubs actually poses a post-season threat to a potential first-round opponent? Three of the six? Two? One? None?
Here’s a look at the post-season potential of the wild-card teams:
Unlike the Eastern Conference wild-card teams, who are battling to stay out of the second wild-card spot so as to not draw the Tampa Bay Lightning, it doesn’t really matter whether the Stars square off against their familiar foes in the Central Division – the Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues are all still in the mix for the divisional crown – or cross over to the Pacific and draw the Calgary Flames in the first round. The Stars have the one thing going from them that can change a series in an instant: goaltending.
Yes, Ben Bishop fell injured and he’s out day-to-day with a lower-body ailment. And yes, that’s not ideal. But as we explained yesterday, Anton Khudobin is a more-than capable second-stringer who has played incredibly well this season, meaning Dallas has a shot to beat the Jets or Predators or Blues or Flames with either keeper getting the start. And while regular season records might not mean much come the post-season, it’s worth noting that the Stars have proven they can beat all four teams. Dallas’ combined record against the four potential first-round opponents is 11-3-2, with a combined plus-15 goal differential.
Right now, it’s all about draw. The Hurricanes hung with the Capitals Thursday and have proven they can beat top teams down the stretch. What it all comes down to for Carolina is the possession game, and that’s how the Hurricanes will live or die in the post-season. There are few teams who have demonstrated an ability to carry play quite like Brind’Amour’s bunch this season, and that gives Carolina a certain Los Angeles Kings-esque quality, although the Hurricanes are the new-school version with speed and skill in the likes of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.
There are two things that stand to sink the Hurricanes in the post-season, though: goaltending and offensive depth. As steady as McElhinney and Mrazek have been, neither is what you would call a series-stealing goaltender. And while scoring beyond the top line hasn’t necessarily been hard to come by, one worries about how Carolina matches up with top teams when you get into the bottom six. There’s one more caveat, too. Dropping into the second wild-card spot and meeting the Lightning in Round One would surely mean an early end to the post-season run.
THE LONG SHOTS
Columbus Blue Jackets
Some consider the second-wild card spot in the Eastern Conference tantamount to missing the post-season altogether. After all, drawing the Lightning has first-round exit written all over it. And it would certainly seem a bad draw for Columbus, who have lost all three games they’ve played against Tampa Bay this season by a combined 17-3 score. Ouch.
So, why include the Blue Jackets in this category? There are a few reasons, the most important of which is the recent play of Sergei Bobrovsky. What felled the Lightning last season was a hot goaltender – Braden Holtby’s back-to-back shutouts sent Washington to the Stanley Cup final and Tampa Bay packing – and Bobrovsky has been exceptional recently. Since March 5, the Blue Jackets’ starter has turned in a .954 save percentage in nine games, picking up wins against playoff-bound Eastern Conference clubs such as the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. A hot goaltender can turn a series on its head, and Bobrovsky’s playoff demons aside, he has the quality to steal games.
Also, offensively, Columbus has a rock-solid top six that includes Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cam Atkinson and deadline additions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. Defensively, the Blue Jackets’ blueline can roll out two solid pairings. There isn’t going to be much hope if Columbus meets Tampa Bay in Round One, but there’s reason for some.
It’s possible that this comes down to draw and draw alone, and while the Avalanche have some serious ground to make up on the Stars for the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference – Colorado trails by five points with five games left and a game in hand on Dallas – it’s not impossible. So, why do the Avalanche stand a chance if they finish in the first wild-card spot? It comes down to matchup. Colorado has matched up well against Winnipeg, who are currently in top spot in the Central and the projected first-round opponent of the conference’s top wild-card club.
In four meetings this season, the Avalanche have managed to split the series with the Jets, but more importantly, Colorado holds the edge in goal differential, outscoring Winnipeg 17-14 across the meetings between the clubs. The Jets have had difficulty shutting down the Avalanche’s top scorers, and the two most recent clashes between Winnipeg and Colorado have been decidedly one-sided in favor of the wild-card club. And while the suggestion that the Avalanche can beat the Jets in a seven-game set might get laughed off by some, recall the scare Colorado put into Nashville in Round One last season. The Predators were Stanley Cup favorites, and the Avalanche – without their No. 1 goaltender – gave Nashville all it could handle.
From an analytical perspective, the Canadiens fall into the same category as the Hurricanes. Claude Julien has coached his Montreal group from a projected lottery club into a post-season contender by playing the possession-heavy game that was so successful during his tenure with the Bruins. In most of the major advanced statistical categories at five-a-side, the Canadiens are either within on the cusp of the top-five in the NHL. That gives Montreal the foundation they need to stun any team in the first round. Adding to that foundation is Carey Price, who has posted a .924 SP in his 46 games since Shea Weber’s return in late-November.
The concerns for Montreal are twofold, however. The first is making the playoffs in the first place, which is going to be an uphill battle given the schedule the rest of the way. The second is producing in the post-season given consistent offense has been hard to come by. Montreal ranks 15th in the NHL with 2.99 goals per game – 233 total – and the high-end scoring depth is thin. It’s a score-by-committee group. And if the top-six is shut down by a skilled defensive team, the Canadiens might have trouble generating much, especially against the Lightning.
Darcy Kuemper is on the kind of heater that might get him kicked out of a Las Vegas casino. Across his past 19 games, he has a .941 SP, three shutouts and he has almost singlehandedly kept the Coyotes in the wild-card race. The unfortunate reality for Arizona, though, is that you also have to find ways to score in the post-season, and that hasn’t been the Coyotes’ strong suit. Only three teams have fewer goals per game this season, and unlike the upset-special Stars, who rate below Arizona in the same category, Dallas has the kind of top-end talents that can take over a game. The Coyotes don’t have a Tyler Seguin or Jamie Benn or Alexander Radulov. Instead, Arizona trots out Clayton Keller, Alex Galchenyuk and Derek Stepan.
If the Coyotes manage to make it to the dance, the likelihood that those three get honed in on and rendered ineffective offensively would be high, especially with how serious the matchup game gets during the playoffs. Does Arizona have the depth scoring? Is their defense deep enough? Does Kuemper keep up his play and avoid turning into a pumpkin in the post-season? Too many questions and not enough answers.
This has been an almost endlessly frustrating season for Minnesota, and there’s a good possibility that it ends with the Wild missing the post-season for the first time since the 2011-12 campaign, thus halting a six-season playoff streak. The outlook simply isn’t good with Minnesota four points out of the final wild-card spot with five games remaining in the campaign.
If the Wild do make it, though, chances are the playoff bubble bursts in the opening round. The biggest strike against Minnesota is its inconsistent – and sometimes non-existent – offense. The Wild have scored 2.62 goals per game, the fifth-fewest in the NHL, and despite having good underlying numbers at 5-on-5, Minnesota doesn’t have the triggermen or the game-breakers to compete with the top teams in the conference. In years past, the argument in favor of the Wild would be that Devan Dubnyk can steal games. And while he is still capable of doing just that, he hasn’t shown it consistently this season. Even in recent weeks, he’s been simply average, boasting a .911 SP in 11 games since the beginning of March.
Minnesota’s playoff prospects are slim. And even if they do make it, the chances the Wild play beyond Round One are even slimmer.