Carolina Hurricanes vs. New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Washington Capitals
RBC Center
March 18, 20, 21

A lot has happened since those blissful preseason days when the hockey world was at the Carolina Hurricanes’ fingertips. With 11 games remaining in the regular season and a crucial three-game homestand this week, the Hurricanes are in a familiar spot: playing fairly well, but struggling to keep up with teams that have games in hand in the standings. However, the outlook could be so much worse. Numerous three-plus game slides, a coaching change, a trade deadline stunner and a Finnish invasion later, the ‘Canes are in a good position to make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. Let’s take a look at how the team got to this point.

Mo’ Mo

It seems like a long time ago, but since we last spoke, the ‘Canes sent Stanley Cup-winning coach Peter Laviolette packing with a sincere thank you and brought Paul “Mo” Maurice back on board. What Maurice lacks in Laviolette’s red-faced, gum-chewing, ref-berating passion, he makes up in stoic intensity. Maurice chooses to let his fashion sense speak for him (seriously, check out those specs).

Maurice couldn’t quite smack the inconsistency out of the Hurricanes, but he has steered them on the right path with a more defensive style of play that has recently invigorated the offense. He may not be the answer past this season, but he’s the right solution for now.

“We’re putting the band back together!”

General Manager Jim Rutherford likes to surround himself with familiar faces. He made two big attempts to shake the team out of its stretches of poor performance. The first was to recall Maurice in December. And at the trade deadline two weeks ago, he made only one move, and that was to bring back fan favorite Erik Cole with the hope that it would spark the ‘Canes on their run to the playoffsand inspire Cole’s former linemate Eric Staal in the process. It worked, to the tune of three straight wins and a combined 18-4 score against their opponents. Even though that remarkable honeymoon is over, Rutherford’s aversion to new people seems to have benefitted the team yet again. Sadly, the ‘Canes had to give up the oft-injured Justin Williams, but at the rate Rutherford recycles talent, Williams could be back by July.

The Finnish Collection?

In January 2008, the ‘Canes didn’t have a single “Flying Finn” on their roster. The team now has three players that hail from the land of reindeer stew, and that trio has made significant contributions this year. Paul Holmgren, general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, recently received recognition from a Finnish ambassador for his contributions to the game in retaining four Finnish players on his roster.

Perhaps aspiring for similar accolades, the ‘Canes quickly began collecting Finnish players like Pokemon cards. Although the original Cole trade has been all but nullified, the fruits of that deal are still alive and thriving in Carolina. Joni Pitkanen floated into port with a dark wake of dissatisfied teams and fans behind him, but he turned into a solid offensive defenseman who, under Maurice’s new system, has become more secure at his own end.

Jussi Jokinen, the newest Finnish addition, has taught the Hurricanes how to score in the shootout. And as for Tuomo Ruutu, a simple sentence can not describe how important the physical, scoring first-liner has been to the roster this year.

So, that’s what’s happened. Now, the Hurricanes are mired in an epic battle with Pittsburgh, New York, Buffalo and Florida for one of two final playoff spots, which would give the ‘Canes their first postseason berth since they won it all in 2006. Ideally, they don’t want to wind up as the eighth seed and face Boston in the first round, as the powerhouse Bruins flogged them enthusiastically during the regular season. However, it’s the playoffs; anything can happen. Any seed would be good enough.

Here’s what would need to happen for the ‘Canes to go the distance.

Brind’Amour defies his age

The ‘Canes captain was a liability in his own end for most of the season after undergoing knee surgery last season and losing that extra spring in his step. He was plastered with an unsightly -28 in the plus-minus category and his ice time dwindled. There was even speculation that he would be benched or retire. However, after being placed on a productive line with Sergei Samsonov and Patrick Eaves, two fast skaters, he has found his scoring touch again. “Never underestimate confidence, even with a veteran player,” Maurice said after a recent game. Brind’Amour has been given a new lease on his career, and with four goals in his last five games, he could lead his team to the playoffs again.

The two “Ericks” keep this freaky chemistry going

Staal and Cole have to continue this scoring tear. During certain spells, Carolina’s superstar and his wing man have seen their chemistry fizzle out and have wound up on separate lines, but like Starsky and Hutch, Calvin and Hobbes, Bush and Cheney … they’re just better together.

Cam Ward plays every game like it’s his last

Carolina has a playoff goaltender, one who shows why he earned the No. 1 spot when the stands are overfilled, scrutiny is overwhelming and victory is crucial. Ward has yet to prove that he can post dazzling numbers every night during the regular season, but there is no question that he can play when the pressure is on. He has been standing on his head to get wins for his team in this playoff-hungry atmosphere, playing almost 20 consecutive games without a rest. He must keep doing this, obviously.

Of course, the team will need good fortune. The Hurricanes’ playoff rivals all have games in hand, and at a certain point, the team’s fate may be beyond its control, as horrifying of a proposition as that may be.

A good showing during the ‘Canes upcoming three-game homestand at the RBC Center would be a step in the right direction. After a disappointing road trip in which the ‘Canes were winless in three outings, the team still clings to eighth place. Tonight, Carolina faces goaltending god Martin Brodeur and his New Jersey Devils before taking on the lowly New York Islanders on Friday and the resurgent Washington Capitals on Saturday.

If the ‘Canes’ underrated defensive core holds strong, the offense continues to click, they can avoid injury and the Hockey Gods smile upon them, there’s a good chance the Caniac Nation will be getting its “good” tailgating gear out of storage in a month.

Kate Shefte covers the Hurricanes for Triangle Offense, the Indy‘s sports blog.

Correction (March 18, 2009): Joni Pitkanen was misidentified in the photo above.