Don't look now, but Paul Maurice has the Carolina Hurricanes primed for another playoff spot as they take on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night at Air Canada Centre.
The Hurricanes have made a habit of an up, then down, trajectory over the last several seasons. After reaching the NHL's Eastern final in 2009, Carolina paid the price for an old lineup last season and crashed badly.
Most pundits predicted they'd be on the outside looking in this season. But stars Eric Staal and Cam Ward are in top form, the blue-line was bolstered by the re-signing of Joe Corvo and the acquisition of Ian White, and rookies Jeff Skinner and Jamie McBain have stepped in and played with poise.
Carolina sits just one point behind the suddenly struggling Atlanta for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot, but they have two games in hand on the Thrashers. Atlanta hosts Calgary on Thursday.
The Hurricanes would be in the top eight already if it weren't for one team — the Boston Bruins. Carolina has won five of its last nine games, with three of those losses coming to the Bruins.
Carolina has been outscored 13-4 in the trio of games. Ward made 30 saves, but Carolina fell to Boston 3-2 on Tuesday.
Sergei Samsonov and Erik Cole each had two assists. McBain scored and Corvo's goal extended his points streak to six games.
"You've got to try to get into some overtimes in the games that you don't necessarily play your best," said Corvo, who has a goal and an assist against Toronto this season. "Especially at home, it stings a little bit.
Jokinen out up to 2 weeks
Forward Jussi Jokinen will be out of the lineup between one to two weeks after suffering a lower-body injury against the Bruins. Jokinen notched three assists total in Carolina's two wins against Toronto this season.
Former Canadian world junior Zach Boychuk was called up from the AHL to fill the spot. Boychuk has nine goals and seven assists in 51 career games with the Hurricanes.
The teams met most recently on Jan. 24. Tim Brent scored twice to help Toronto tie the score 3-3 early in the third in Raleigh, but Skinner and Brandon Sutter each replied for the Hurricanes in a 6-4 result.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere was in net for Toronto on that night, as well as for Tuesday's 4-3 shootout win over Florida. Giguere stopped 30 shots against the Panthers and bested counterpart Scott Clemmensen in the shootout.
Toronto (20-25-5) got goals in regulation from Kris Versteeg, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.
Maurice couldn't bring the Leafs to the playoffs in two seasons at the helm, and it's looking like Ron Wilson won't be able to in his third year behind the bench in Toronto.
The Maple Leafs have decisions to make on several players — either before the Feb. 28 trade deadline or after the season. On Wednesday, they decided to extend grinder Mike Brown for three more seasons.
Toronto plays 12 more times this month, beginning Saturday in Buffalo on Hockey Night in Canada (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET).