Hurricanes in survival mode as postseason hopes fade

NEW YORK -- It has been nearly a month since the Carolina Hurricanes held sole possession of the final wild-card spot in a crowded Eastern Conference playoff race.

Since then, the losses are piling up but the Hurricanes are coming off one of their better showings of late heading into Monday's visit to the New York Rangers, who have won 14 straight home games in the series.

On Feb. 15, the Hurricanes owned 63 points and a one-point lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets. They were tied in points with the New York Islanders on Feb. 18-19 but have steadily fallen further away since.

By the end of February, Carolina trailed Columbus by four points and, heading into Monday, the Hurricanes are six points behind the Blue Jackets. Carolina has 14 games left to make up the deficit but also must contend with the Florida Panthers, who are four points ahead.

The Hurricanes are in this struggle for survival in the playoff race because, since going 6-2-1 from Jan. 25-Feb. 13, they are 3-6-2 in their last 11 games.

Carolina last played Thursday when Sebastian Aho scored the tiebreaking power-play goal in the third period and Justin Williams had a goal and an assist in a 3-2 win at Chicago. Beating the Blackhawks moved Carolina to within four points of the final wild-card spot, but it lost two more points in the standings when Columbus won on Friday and New Jersey won Saturday.

Carolina's quest for a wild-card spot is occurring during a change in management. New owner Tom Dundon moved Ron Francis from GM to a newly created role as the team's president of hockey operations, and the players are not concerned about the change impacting their on-ice performance.

"It doesn't affect what we do day to day at all," Williams told reporters. "There are no changes coming right now. Certainly, he's still going to be around. It's not like we're never going to see him again.

"There are obviously some changes being made, and our product on the ice will probably determine how many guys are left here.

Williams went without a goal for eight games from Feb. 10-27 but has four in his last five games. Teuvo Teravainen, who leads the team with 53 points, has six goals in his last nine.

Aho matched his goal total from his rookie season on Thursday and has three goals in his last six games.

Scott Darling made 22 saves in his return to Chicago and is expected to start again Monday. He is 3-7-1 in his last 11 appearances.

Though not mathematically eliminated, the Rangers (30-32-7) are 10 points out after a 4-3 shootout loss at Florida on Saturday. The Rangers are 3-2-1 in six games since the trade deadline.

New York put together its first three-game winning streak since mid-December by sweeping a Western Canada swing but have were outscored 8-3 to Winnipeg and Tampa Bay before coming back against Florida in an eventual 4-3 loss in the shootout on Saturday.

Mats Zuccarello, Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes scored in regulation while Ryan Spooner collected two assists.

"Everybody's got something to prove, and we're trying to prove that we can win," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault told reporters. "Unfortunately, we didn't get it done."

New York is 6-15-2 in its last 23 games, but Hayes and Spooner are playing well of late.

Hayes has scored seven of his career-high in 20 goals in his last 10 games while Spooner has two goals and 10 assists in seven games since being acquired from Boston for Rick Nash on Feb. 25.

On Saturday, Spooner and Hayes were on a line with Zuccarello, who has scored goals in consecutive games for the first time this season.

"He's been working hard all year long, but for whatever reason, with the puck, he's had a hard time making the plays that we normally see him (make)," Vigneault told reporters of Zuccarello, "But he is a very sensitive young man, and I think everything that's happened around our group has had some effect on him. But at the end of the day, he's got to play well for our team to have success."

The Rangers outscored Carolina 11-2 in the first two meetings. New York is 22-4 in the last 26 meetings since the start of the 2011-12 season and its home winning streak is the longest against any opponent in team history.

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