For the Canes, this is it.
Beginning tonight against the Washington Capitals, the Canes play six straight home games. That's 12 points on the line and the Canes, 10-3-1 in their last 14 home games, need just about all of them if they're to make any late-season noise in the NHL East.
When the Caps were last in the RBC Center, on Jan. 20, the Canes were 3-0 winners. But that was with Cam Ward in net, and Carolina goes into this vital stretch of games with uncertainty about Ward's availability.
UPDATE: Goaltender Mike Murphy was recalled this morning from the Charlotte Checkers (AHL).
Ward, who had started 14 straight games, missed two practices last week because of what Canes coach Kirk Muller called a "slight tweak," and Justin Peters then was the starter Friday against the San Jose Sharks. Ward was in net Saturday against the New York Islanders but was forced to leave the game after the second period with a "lower-body" injury.
As of Sunday night, Peters was expected to be the starter tonight and Ward was said to be day-to-day. Muller will make the final determination at today's pregame skate at the RBC Center.
Goaltender Brian Boucher, out since Dec. 6 with a lower-body injury, has been back on the ice working and is set to rejoin team practices this week. It's possible Boucher could be available during the homestand, although his status for tonight's game won't be known until the skate.
"We need to find a way to win just about all of the games on this home stretch if we want to make the playoffs," forward Jussi Jokinen said. "We've been finding ways to win games, whether with special teams, five on five, great goaltending, whatever. It's something different every night."
Losing 4-3 to the Islanders hurt. At this point of the season the Canes need every point they can get and any regulation loss is damaging.
But the Canes are 4-1-2 in their last seven. Jiri Tlusty has a seven-game point streak and Eric Staal has points in his last five games.
Staal now has 26 points (9 goals, 17 assists) in his last 21 games. He's playing his best hockey, being a leader for Muller and being a presence on the ice.
For a good chunk of the season, Staal faced the "what's wrong?" question at every NHL stop. Now it's "what changed?"
“When you have a tough start, the negatives just build,” Staal said. “I’m the type of person and player where I put a lot of pressure on myself. For me personally, there were a lot of negatives that were hard for me to shake off. I felt like I was working harder, and it didn’t get any better. That can get frustrating.
"As a team, we weren’t playing well, either. They made the (coaching) change, and it was kind of a refresh for everybody, a restart. You focus on what the new coach wants you to do and not anything else, and I think that built confidence not only in me but our whole team.”