Once in last place, Hurricanes pushing hard for playoff spot

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) In less than a month, the Carolina Hurricanes have gone from last place in the Eastern Conference to the edge of the playoff picture.

The Hurricanes enter the weekend four points behind Boston for the East's eighth and final playoff spot with seven games remaining.

It's been a remarkable turnaround for a team that earlier this week inherited the dubious distinction of owning the NHL's longest active playoff drought - and all it took was earning at least one point in a franchise-record 13 straight games.

Heading into the final week of the season, they've got a chance - a slim one, but a chance nonetheless - to shed that label as quickly as they earned it.

''The belief system is very strong right now,'' coach Bill Peters said.

They know they've got to remain near-perfect, though, starting with Saturday night's game against Dallas and continuing through next week's two-game road swing through playoff-bound Pittsburgh and Minnesota.

''It's fun. That's why you play the game,'' said forward Jeff Skinner, who along with many of his teammates has never skated in a playoff game. ''I think you look at guys are feeding off of each other, guys are playing well, we're playing well as a team and it's a lot of fun coming to the rink when you've got things on the line. Hopefully we can keep this thing rolling and keep it that way.''

The only other team in club history to earn points in 12 consecutive games went on to hoist the Stanley Cup in 2006.

These Hurricanes have gone 9-0-4 since March 9 to vault back into contention. They broke that 11-year-old club record Thursday night with a 2-1 overtime victory over Columbus in which Skinner scored the tying goal with 4:20 left in regulation, then set up Noah Hanifin's winner 2:16 into OT.

A pair of first-round draft picks has led the way: Skinner (2010) scored goals in a career-best six straight games, piling up nine points in that stretch, and Elias Lindholm (2013) had either a goal or an assist - or both - in 11 of those 13 games.

''We absolutely have a shot here to do this,'' said Hanifin, their first-round pick in 2015.

Carolina's string of seven straight years without making the tournament became the longest in the league when Edmonton clinched its first playoff berth since 2006. Coincidentally, the Oilers' last appearance in the postseason came in 2006 - when they lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final to Carolina.

The Hurricanes' only playoff berth since that championship season came in 2009 - when they won two early-round Game 7s to advance to the Eastern Conference final. Since then, they haven't been close very often, finishing at least 10 points back in each of the last five years.

It wasn't long ago that things looked bleak once again. Carolina was in last in the East on March 4 with 60 points, one behind the Detroit Red Wings, after a home loss to an Arizona team that remains the second-worst team in the league.

The Hurricanes have been tough to beat ever since.

''When you're playing well, you want to get back out there,'' said veteran goalie Cam Ward, the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. ''We're starving to go to the playoffs, but you can't do it all in eight games. You've got to take one game at a time and not look too far in the future. We've been doing a good job of taking care of ourselves and coming to the rink each day and trying to win the day. ... Winning's fun, so we're having a lot of fun.''

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Follow Joedy McCreary at http://twitter.com/joedyap

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