Crunch time arrives for the Hurricanes

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The Carolina Hurricanes woke up Friday in the first wild-card playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. That is, no change.

Ahead of them, in third place in the Metropolitan Division, are the Pittsburgh Penguins, who picked up two points Thursday by topping the Buffalo Sabres 5-0. Behind the Canes, in the second wild-card spot, are the Columbus Blue Jackets. Still lurking: the Montreal Canadiens, beaten Thursday by the New York Islanders.

The unavoidable truth is that one of the four teams is going to be left out of the playoffs, ending its season with a lot of what-ifs, second guesses and badly disappointed fans.

The Canes (38-24-7), with 83 points, have 13 games left and have a Friday road game — how big is this one? — against the Blue Jackets. They follow it up Saturday at PNC Arena against the Sabres, starting a run of five home games that also includes matchups against the Pens and Canadiens. Crunch time, they call it.

A little historical perspective: in 2009, the last time the Canes reached the playoffs, they were 9-3-1 in their last 13 games and finished with 97 points. In 2011, they also were 9-3-1 in the last 13, missing out on the final day of the season after a 6-2 home loss to Tampa Bay and finishing with 91 points.

Former Canes forward Erik Cole doesn’t like to compare teams but remembers the anguish of 2011, when Carolina was squeezed out in the end by the New York Rangers.

“That was the second time it had happened to us,” Cole said. “We had lost a few years prior in a home game against Florida. We needed to win one game in the last week of the season and didn’t get it done. So it was a couple of times where it was a real gut punch.

“When you’re going down the stretch, it can get tough when you’re playing against some teams that may not have much to lose. They play a little looser and play a little freer. You’re almost better off having a schedule like the Hurricanes have where a lot of the teams they play in the last couple of weeks of the season are all going to be tough competition — teams that are going to get them ready for the playoffs and teams they need to be competing with and beating to earn the right to be in the playoffs.”

The Pens, despite some injuries, have made a strong move in the right direction. After a 5-0 win over the Sabres on Thursday, they’re 7-1-2 in their last 10 games to get to 87 points.

The Canes, 7-2-1 in their last 10, have two games-in-hand on the Pens and the Habs, and one on Columbus. The Canes have not played since Monday’s 3-0 road win over the Colorado Avalanche, with goalie Petr Mrazek earning the shutout. That’s a long break at this point in the season and one that Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour was not entirely comfortable with but is hoping can be beneficial.

“I think it’s a mental challenge this time of year,” Brind’Amour said this week. “The guys have been grinding so hard, especially our group from where we’ve come from. We had to put it in high gear about game 30. Other teams had the luxury of not having to press that early. But we’ve pressed pretty hard and that takes a mental toll.”

Physically, Brind’Amour said there are some “dings.” Defenseman Calvin de Haan was hit in the right eye by a stick at Colorado and his return remains uncertain. Forward Micheal Ferland, who missed the past two games with an upper-body injury, could return for the Columbus game, Brind’Amour said.

The Blue Jackets are 5-5-0 in their last 10 but coming off a 7-4 blasting of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday.

“We know what our goal is and we’re not there yet,” Brind’Amour said. “The guys have pushed hard to try to get into the race and we certainly don’t want to take any steps back now.”