This is how screwy the Carolina Hurricanes’ schedule has been, and especially in the Metropolitan Division:
▪ The Canes already have completed a four-game season series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
▪ The Canes faced the Washington Capitals, the Metro Division leaders, for the first time Tuesday, losing 5-4 in overtime.
▪ The Canes have yet to play a game against two other Metro teams, the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils.
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And that’s 39 games into the season, two short of the halfway point.
What that also means is that the Hurricanes have a lot of games left against teams in the toughest division in the NHL. The Canes believe they have a playoff-caliber team, one capable of breaking their eight-year playoff drought. Considering the remaining schedule, they’ll learn if they have the right stuff.
As Canes forward Justin Williams said Tuesday morning, “The proof is in the process and how you play on the ice, not what you say.”
The Metro could take five of the eight playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, including the two wild-card berths. It’s just that loaded.
“At the start of the year, you have to assume the goal is 100 points every year to get into the playoffs,” Williams said. “We’re not there, on this pace. We’re close, but we’re not there.
“If you look at the teams at Christmas that are in the playoffs, a lot of times the teams are there at the end of the year. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. We know that. But we’re in position to do something.”
The Carolina Hurricanes Justin Williams talks to reporters following the team's 5-4 loss in overtime to the Washington Capitals in an NHL hockey game played at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Jan., 2, 2018. Chip Alexandercalexander@newsobserver.com
The point gained from the overtime loss Tuesday did edge the Canes (18-13-8) into the second wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That’s the position they wanted to be in after Tuesday but not the way they wanted it, not after their first loss on home ice in seven games.
And, as Canes coach Bill Peters said, there’s still a lot of hockey to be played and improvement that needs to be made.
To reach the playoffs, the Canes will need to be better finishers offensively, at even strength and on the power play. They’ve been better of late on the power play and got a power-play goal Tuesday from Victor Rask, who scored twice in the game, but came into the game 28th in the NHL at 15.4 percent.
In overtime, Carolina’s Sebastian Aho had a shot go off the post, and then the Caps quickly got the winner from Alex Ovechkin, who also scored in the third period for a 4-4 tie. The Canes couldn’t finish and the Caps did — albeit on a goal from one of the best offensive finishers in NHL history.
“That’s what he does, right?” Peters said.
Overtime continues to be a problem, as well, for the Canes. They’ve had seven games decided in the 3-on-3 OT period and won just twice, letting points slip away.
Then there’s the goaltending. The Canes will not make the playoffs with one goalie playing well or reasonably well. Cam Ward and Scott Darling each has to do his part.
Darling was brought in and given a four-year, $16.6 million contract to be the No. 1 goalie, easing Ward into a backup role. After 39 games, Ward is No. 1 and the Canes are still waiting on Darling to be consistent and effective.
“You’ve not going to win every one, as much as I’d like to, but bagging points is important, especially looking at our standing in the Metro,” Williams said.
The Carolina Hurricanes Jeff Skinner saw some good and bad in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in an NHL hockey game played at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Jan. 2, 2018. Chip Alexandercalexander@newsobserver.com
The Eastern Conference standings now show the Canes in a wild-card spot.
"It’s not something that we’re going to look at and savor,” Canes forward Jeff Skinner said. “We want to try to keep climbing. That’s the mentality now.”
The Canes’ next four games are on the road: Pittsburgh, Boston, Tampa Bay and then Washington again. It’s a steep climb.
“It’s going to be a battle the whole year,” Williams said.