By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - The Carolina Hurricanes find themselves trapped in a deadline day dilemma after a seventh straight loss on Thursday, slowly slipping out of a playoff race and pondering whether to make a deal or stick with what they have.
With the National Hockey League's April 3 trade deadline fast approaching, the Hurricanes have little time to decide if they want to roll dice and make a trade that could help send them to the post-season or ride out the current storm.
"When you play well and don't get anything out of it that's what is tough," Hurricane's coach Kirk Muller told reporters. "It's a test for us, we're still in it.
"It's like a playoff series, you lose a few and you know it's not over yet, I don't think anyone is going to quit."
Despite a 6-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the slumping Hurricanes remain just three points out of a playoff spot, leaving Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford scratching his head over what to do next.
The Hurricanes, however, are not the only team caught in a deadline day no man's land.
The lockout-shortened 48-game season has created a unique competitiveness, further complicated by a salary cap that is set to drop from $70 million to just over $64 million next year, forcing general managers to balance the reality of the books against their dreams of making the playoffs.
When the puck was dropped on Thursday, only seven points separated the New York Rangers, who occupied the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, and the Philadelphia Flyers in 14th.
With just four weeks remaining in the regular season, only a handful of teams have written off their post-season hopes, blurring the lines between buyers and sellers.
The Calgary Flames, anchored to the bottom of the Western Conference, signaled they had thrown in the towel, trading long-time captain and Canadian Olympic gold medalist Jarome Iginla to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday for a pair of prospects and a first round draft pick.
Sensing they are well-positioned to make a deep playoff run, the Penguins have been buyers, also acquiring Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow earlier in the week and rugged San Jose Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray.
With Sidney Crosby back in top form leading the scoring race and the Penguins on a 14-game winning streak, the pressure is mounting on the East's other front-runners like the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens to keep pace with Pittsburgh.
At the moment, it would seem to be a seller's market, with more teams looking to get into the post-season and an opportunity to recover revenue lost to the lockout.
But the asking price for a "rental", a player with an expiring contract and only likely to remain with a team through the post-season, may have gone up with demand exceeding supply.
"It makes rentals a little more valuable this year for a certain group of teams, including ours," Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli told a news conference.
"So you have to be a little creative and you have to open up your decision-making process to more things."
(Editing by John O'Brien)