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Hurricanes face test from league-best Avalanche

Apr 5, 2022; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Colorado Avalanche left wing Artturi Lehkonen (62) shoots to score on an empty net against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period at PPG Paints Arena. Colorado won 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes would like to hold the best record in the Eastern Conference. It’s getting to crunch time in that quest.

To make the necessary rise, the Hurricanes might need to conquer the Western Conference’s best team when they visit the Colorado Avalanche for Saturday night’s game at Denver.

“We want to finish first,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “We still want to accomplish that. We made that a little tougher (after losing to Detroit on Thursday night).”

Carolina holds a two-point edge on the New York Rangers in the Metropolitan Division, but it’s chasing the Florida Panthers (110 entering Friday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets) for the overall top spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Avalanche (54-14-6, 114 points) are coming off a 3-1 victory against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night, extending their franchise-record win total. Colorado is the NHL’s hottest team with an eight-game winning streak and a 10-game points string.

“I like what we’re doing,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “We’re staying focused and playing the right way. It’s as much about our habits and how we play right now as it is stringing together wins.”

Bednar said the Avalanche’s second power-play unit could see more time in the next couple of weeks as the team looks to evaluate options. There’s also an emphasis on seeing various combinations on penalty-killing groups as well.

Artturi Lehkonen, who recently arrived from the Montreal Canadiens in a trade, scored his second goal with the Avalanche and his 15th of the season overall with a tally against the Devils.

“It’s fun to get the points, but as long as the team keeps winning that’s all that matters,” Lehkonen said.

It has been less consistent lately for the Hurricanes (48-19-8, 104 points), who’ve been shut out twice in the past month.

“There’s no reason to panic or anything,” Hurricanes scoring leader Sebastian Aho said. “You learn from these and (we’ll) be a little bit sharper when we get those chances.

Offense tends to be the Hurricanes’ main issue of late. The Hurricanes have racked up 40 or more shots in seven of their last 17 games, yet they’re just 3-3-1 in those seven games. On Thursday night, a 3-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, 17 of Carolina’s 18 skaters had at least one shot on goal.

“We definitely created enough, so I’m definitely not worried about that,” Carolina forward Jordan Martinook said.

It might have been the power play that let down the Hurricanes the most, Aho said. They finished 0-for-3 with the man advantage.

“With those scoring chances, you’re supposed to score enough goals to win a hockey game,” Aho said.

Carolina had center Jesperi Kotkaniemi back in the lineup after missing eight games with a lower-body injury. Brind’Amour said Kotkaniemi lost a bit of conditioning during the layoff, so it took time to get up to speed.

“I think he’ll continue to get better as we move along,” Brind’Amour said.

Carolina beat the Avalanche 2-0 at home on March 10 behind Antti Raanta’s shutout. However, top goalie Frederik Andersen is likely in line for the start in the rematch.

–Field Level Media