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As good as things have gone for the Hurricanes so far this season, things haven’t been quite as rosy for the rest of the Southeast Division.
While the Hurricanes sit near the top of the Eastern Conference, trailing only the Ottawa Senators, none of their four divisional opponents are currently above the red line that dictates which teams will play in the postseason.
Given that Atlanta won the division last year, Tampa Bay has remained in the mix since winning the Stanley Cup in 2004 and Florida and Washington were supposed to be much improved this season, the fact that all those teams have struggled coming out of the gate comes as somewhat of a surprise.
For the Hurricanes however, playing nine out of their next 11 games against those teams presents a great chance to extend their early seven-point lead in the Southeast, which is tied with Ottawa’s Northeast Division lead as the biggest in the league.
”I think that’s good timing-wise to play a lot of meaningful games that are big games for us, and it’s a great opportunity to give us a little space,” said defenseman Glen Wesley. “That’s one of the things we’ve talked about and we’ve worked for, and we want to continue to work for as the season moves on.”
Even with the slow starts of their regional opponents, the consensus amongst the Hurricanes players seems to be that each of those teams is capable turning things around before too long. After all, some of the Hurricanes’ toughest games have been against them, with two of the Hurricanes’ three regulation losses through 15 games coming at the hands of Washington and Florida.
Even the Hurricanes’ most recent game, a 5-0 win over the Capitals, was a lot tougher than the score indicated.
“Washington certainly put up a spirited game the other night and generated a lot of offense,” said Coach Peter Laviolette. “They’re playing hard. Florida is the same thing, we just lost to them a few games back, and Tampa Bay is always tough to play against. I think the thing that we’ve got to do is keep pushing ourselves to be the best in the conference.”
Gaining a bigger lead in the Southeast Division would be beneficial for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that each division winner is guaranteed a top-three seed in the playoffs and home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.
Also, it would provide a boost of confidence going forward, something that the team didn’t always have last year when it had to play catch-up all year long.
“Any time you can get ahead in your own division and make sure you’re one of those top teams in the conference it does a lot,” said Eric Staal. “It gives you an incentive to be pushing for top overall, and we’ll continue to do that and keep pushing the rest of the way.”
“I think the most important thing that we learned from last year is that you can’t get off to a struggling start, because it’s really an uphill grind the whole season,” said Wesley. “The year before when we went to the Cup, we put ourselves in a spot where we didn’t have to worry about fighting for a playoff spot. We were fighting for a position, and I think that’s the biggest difference in learning from two years ago and last year.”
The Hurricanes won the division by 20 points in 2005-06, clinching the division with nine games still to play.
The Hurricanes will face Tampa Bay for the first time this season at home this Thursday night. The Lighting are currently 14th out of the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference, and are just 2-7-1 in their last 10 games and winless in their last six.
Their team isn’t greatly changed from last year’s team that made the playoffs as the 7th seed, although key defenseman Dan Boyle is out indefinitely with severed tendons in his wrist that will need to be operated on for a second time. He first injured the wrist when a skate fell out of his locker and the blade cut him deeply enough to require the first surgery.
And you thought some of the Hurricanes’ injuries were unusual.
The Lightning will be coming off of a game against Florida on Wednesday night, while the Hurricanes have been off since Monday.