January 03, 2015

Boston's pursuit of home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs would get a nice boost if it can navigate successfully through a very difficult portion of its upcoming schedule.

If they slip, the Bruins could find themselves in trouble within a tight Eastern Conference race.

The Carolina Hurricanes are one of those teams battling for a wild-card spot, and they'll try to knock off visiting Boston on Friday night in the first of three meetings over their final 20 games.

The Bruins (33-22-6) are tied with Tampa Bay for second place in the Atlantic Division, five points behind Florida with both clubs having a game in hand on them. After facing the playoff-hopeful Hurricanes (28-24-10), Boston begins a four-game homestand Sunday against the Lightning with Calgary, defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago and NHL-best Washington also visiting TD Garden.

It has split its last six after David Pastrnak scored twice in Wednesday's 5-1 home win over Pittsburgh.

"Everything's so tight right now," defenseman Torey Krug told the team's official website. "It's just about continuing to improve your game and make sure we're in the picture when the times comes."

The Capitals are running away with the Presidents' Trophy, but the rest of the East is jumbled. Detroit holds the first wild-card spot, but is only one point back of the Bruins and Lightning for the Atlantic's last automatic berth.

Five teams are within five points of the Penguins for the final wild card including the Hurricanes, who are two back.

"You want your team to be consistent and be ready to battle every night," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "That's what our challenge is right now. We've got a tough schedule, but again, I think pretty well every team in this league is going through the same thing."

Carolina hasn't been to the playoffs since 2008-09 and had an opportunity to help its postseason chances when it visited East-worst Toronto on Thursday, but it mustered only John-Michael Liles' first-period goal in a 3-1 defeat. It is in the midst of a 2-3-0 stretch, something not ideal when tied for the most games played in the East.

Pittsburgh has three games in hand on the Hurricanes, who now hope to get back on track with their next two being at home. They're 6-1-1 in Raleigh since Jan. 24, but are also dealing with trade rumors surrounding captain Eric Staal ahead of Monday's deadline.

Staal, who has a no-trade clause, had an assist against the Maple Leafs.

''It's an awkward situation,'' his brother Jordan Staal said. ''But at the same time, he's come ready to play and ready to work every day, and that's all you can ask for.''

Carolina has lost five of the last six meetings with Boston and could turn to Eddie Lack in the second of a back-to-back after Cam Ward made his fourth straight start Thursday. Lack made 40 saves for Vancouver to beat the Bruins on Feb. 24, 2015, in his only career start against them.

Tuukka Rask has won three of his last four starts with a 1.77 goals-against average and should get the start for Boston. He's stopped 121 of 125 shots while going 3-0-1 in his last four against Carolina.

"They play with a lot of energy," Krug said of the Hurricanes. "I think their transition game is really strong, so it's a good test going into their building."

Carolina defenseman Justin Faulk sat out again Thursday after aggravating a leg injury during practice the previous day. It's unclear if he'll be available for this one.

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