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The Possible Opponents: Carolina Hurricanes

Editor's Note: I apologize for this not being up much earlier. My internet has been pretty Comcastic all day and night today.

In the first installment of our postseason preview, we're taking a look at the most likely first round playoff opponent for the Flyers. That team is the Carolina Hurricanes, and if the playoffs started today, they'd be visiting the Wachovia Center for game one.

That should strike fear into all of our hearts. They've been far and away the best team in hockey since the trade deadline, losers of just one game in regulation since then. One game?! Yeah, that's not a typo. One friggin' game. Overall, they've gone 12-1-2 since the deadline. They've climbed from 10th place on March 1st all the way up to fifth place today, and they even passed Philadelphia for a night last week.

What's going on in Carolina has been nothing short of amazing. Here's what people are saying about the Hurricanes unbelievable run.

While it's true that being hot going into the postseason hasn't really meant all that much, historically speaking, I think teams like Carolina, Anaheim, and Columbus are worth keeping an eye on. They're playing dramatically different than they were earlier in the season, and are likely tougher first-round draws than many are giving them credit for.

>> SBN's James Mirtle, also anointing the 'Canes as hockey's hottest team

Players do concede the Carolina Hurricanes' RBC Center would prove one of the more difficult venues to claim a series-deciding Game 7 victory - and not simply because the Penguins were on a 2-4-1 stretch there before Saturday.

"This is a loud building, and it would be louder in a must-win playoff game," center Max Talbot said. "It's been a tough place for us to win. It's been tough for everybody."

>> Rob Rossi, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

More importantly than anything else, the Canes are playing like a "team" now.  And thanks to Paul Maurice and company, it's a team no one wants to face in the postseason.

>> Bubba, SBN's 'Canes Country

Much of the 'Canes success has to do with the ridiculous play of goaltender Cam Ward. He's played in 27 straight games and has been a model of consistency over the entire streak, going 19-6-2 with a goals against average 1.93 and a save percentage of .938. He's playing like the rookie that won the Conn Smythe in 2006.

Another reason for the teams' success has been the resurgence of Rod Brind'Amour. One of my all time favorite Flyers, Brindy had an absoultely terrible start to his season. He's gone through long stretches this season without notching any points and many in Carolina believed that an injury he suffered last season caused him to lose a step and that he'd never get back to his old self.

The captain of the Hurricanes has proven those people wrong. Since the trade deadline, Brind'Amour has 18 points in 15 games and is a plus-eight as well. He is playing like his old self and is leading his team into the playoffs at the same time. And he, as always, leads the NHL in faceoff percentage, winning 60.9 percent of his draws.

Of course,  they've also got that guy Eric Staal. He's pretty good at hockey, and his 39 goals this season are only topped by five other guys in the league.

How do they match up with the Flyers? Well, they certainly don't have the scoring depth to rival the orange and black (in fact, no other team in the NHL can boast the depth the Flyers have on offense), but they've scored a respectable 234 goals thus far this season. That's right around the mid-mark in the league, compared to the Flyers who rank fourth in the league with 253 goals scored.

Defensively, they have been much, much better since Paul Maurice took over the coaching reigns in December. They've tightened up on D big time, making things easier on Ward and giving the offense more chances to do their thing. In an interview with Puck Daddy, Ward talked about the defense.

We've been kind of known as a run and gun team in these last couple of years. We scored a lot of goals but we also gave up a lot of goals. Since Paul stepped in, we've really tightened up defensively and, in my eyes, we have a very underrated defensive lineup.

The Hurricanes are a very good team at home, and they sport a 26-13-1 record to show it. They are mediocre on the road, sitting at 19-15-6 on the season. The Flyers are pretty much in the same both, with a stellar 24-12-4 record in South Philly and a decent 19-13-7 showing away from town. Since this will be the 4/5 matchup in the East if it happens, either team could end up with home-ice advantage. That could be what decides the series.

The biggest question in Carolina is whether or not they can keep up their torrid pace. There are concerns that Ward could get burnt out -- 27-plus games in a row is no joke. And if he falters, the 'Canes are in trouble. At the same time, he's shown absolutely zero signs of slowing things down.

There is, however, good reason to think that the team will regress to the mean sometime soon, considering the pace they are on is hard for any team to keep up over any extended period of time. If that happens in the playoffs, the Hurricanes are a tough but beatable team. But if they keep this up, I don't want any part of them.

For more on the Hurricanes, head over to SBN's Canes Country. Coming tomorrow, part two of our look at potential playoff opponents. We'll be looking at those evil Pittsburgh Penguins.

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