The Carolina Hurricanes have quietly stormed up the standings in the Eastern Conference with a seven game win streak and now find themselves in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. With only four games remaining, Head Coach Paul Maurice and goaltender Cam Ward have set the table for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Besides the overall win streak, the Canes have won ten straight at home and will make life difficult for any visitors to the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The Hurricanes have missed the playoffs two years in a row after winning the Stanley Cup over Edmonton in a hard fought series in 2006, but that will certainly change this Spring. Cam Ward has returned to form and is leading the way this season. The NHL Player of the Month in March with a 10-1-2 record, a minuscule 1.98 goals against average and a .938 save percentage, Ward will return to the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season. His previous trip to the playoffs resulted in a Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. Carolina's first round pick in 2002 (25th overall), Ward is among the league's best goalies with a 37-22-5 record in 65 games played. His 2.45 GAA ranks 11th in the league and his .916 save percentage is 12th. His numbers have been steadily improving as the season progresses, but he hasn't been the only story in Carolina.
While great goaltending is essential in the playoffs, so is veteran leadership. The Hurricanes have a true leader in Ray Whitney. The Sharks second round pick in 1991, Whitney joined the Canes in 2006 as an unrestricted free agent and helped win the Cup with 15 points in the 2006 playoffs. A former member of the Oilers, Panthers, Blue Jackets and Red Wings, he has played in 988 regular season games and currently leads Carolina in scoring with 24 goals and 71 points. He will once again be called upon come playoff time, as will Eric Staal.
Staal, the second overall pick in the 2003 draft from Thunder Bay, Ontario, has become an integral part of the Hurricanes. While he got off to a slow start, since he was reunited with former line-mate Eric Cole at this year's trade deadline he has regained his All-Star form. Going into the last four games of the season, he has scored 35 goals and 34 assists to rank second in team scoring and 10th in the league in goals.
The Ottawa Senators have had a puck moving D-man on their shopping list since they traded away Joe Corvo to Carolina with Patrick Eaves in exchange for Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore. Stillman is third in team scoring in Florida, Commodore is an integral part of the Blue Jackets defense and while Eaves has had injury troubles, Corvo leads the Hurricane blue-liners with 14 goals and 24 assists and has dressed for every game this season. Never a defensive D-man, Corvo is thriving in the Carolina sunshine and has 6 game winning goals this season. As Ottawa starts playing golf next week, they should be wondering if that trade was worth it.
Going into the final week of the season, Carolina is relatively injury free. Only Matt Cullen is on the injured list with a "lower body" injury and he is considered day-to-day since suffering the injury March 21st.
Ward's monthly honours give him a special place in franchise history. Eric Staal is the only other Hurricane to receive the award; he was the Offensive Player of the Month in October 2005. Hartford Whaler - Mike Rogers in 1980, was the last player to win a monthly award for the franchise before Staal and Ward came along according to a Hurricanes press release. If the winning streak continues, the Canes may be earning more trophies when the season is over. There is one in particular they hope to be bringing home to Raleigh in June. Have a great sports day everyone.