Ward was more than solid again Friday night, stopping 15 shots through two periods, then coming up huge with 15 saves in the third as the Hurricanes held off the St. Louis Blues 2-1 to move four games over .500 for the first time since Nov. 21.
Ward is now 3-0 in his career against the Blues, shutting them out 1-0 on Oct. 30 and allowing just three goals in three games.
“We don’t see those guys very often, but when you do play them I’ve got some friends on the other team, so you try to play your best,” Ward said.
Ward made consecutive clutch saves with the Canes clinging to a 1-0 lead six minutes into the final period when he stoned Keith Tkachuk in the slot and then used his noggin to rob T.J. Oshie’s rebound attempt.
“It probably wasn’t the smoothest rebound save, that’s just one of those examples where you’re desperate and you’re just trying to get your body in front of the puck as best you can,” Ward said. “He was standing right there and fortunately I was able to dive and the puck hit me right in the head.”
Anton Babchuk rewarded Ward’s hot goaltending with a power-play tally with 8:55 left, scoring just 18 seconds after hitting the post with a shot to give Carolina a two-goal advantage.
Ward did allow a score 51 seconds after the Babchuk goal, but the Carolina goalie and the defense held the Blues at bay the rest of the way, handing St. Louis its seventh straight road loss.
“It looked like they made a note to throw everything at the net and they definitely came out firing in that third period,” said Ward, who is now four wins shy of 100 for his career. “But one of the things our team has really improved on is we’re not panicking when things like that happen to us, we didn’t force anything.”
Ward has started nine of the last 10 games for the Canes and is now playing for a coach in Maurice who has run his No. 1 goalie hard on occasion, like when Irbe played in a team-record 77 of 82 games during a playoff season of 2000-01.
“I feel good health-wise and I would like to think mentally I’m a lot stronger than I’ve been in the past,” Ward said when asked about playing long stretches of consecutive games. “I’m just excited to come to the rink every day and play with these guys and try to contribute. Hopefully, we can get on a roll and pile up some wins.”
Maurice said Ward has had to go through an adjustment period the last month of not facing as much rubber.
“He has to now get used to seeing (20) shots instead of the 30-40 shots games to where he’s just in a rhythm, on a roll,” Maurice said. “He’s going to be sitting cold for awhile and do nothing and then all of the sudden there’s a big save. That’s what Martin Brodeur has done so well all those years. (Cam) made two or three really big saves there and that was the difference.”
Carolina wasted a golden opportunity to increase its lead midway through the second with a two-man advantage for 1:39, but managed just three shots and no real solid scoring chances.
Ward kept his club up by a goal heading into the third when he stoned David Perron on a rebound by doing the splits as he slid across the goal crease. Perron skated away shaking his head over one of Ward’s best saves of the season.
Eric Staal scored his team-leading 18th goal just 34 seconds into a hooking penalty against Perron, banging home a rebound into a wide open net. After going six straight games without a power-play goal in mid-November, the Canes have scored at least one man-advantage goal in 10 of the last 14 under their new coach.
Staal, playing in his 293rd consecutive game, took a hard check in the neutral zone from David Backes midway through the first and headed to the Carolina locker room. The All-Star center played just 3:25 in the period.
“I dumped it in and it was one, two and three without seeing him and he hit me up in the chin area,” Staal said. “It didn’t feel too good initially and it’s nice being right by the locker room so I could go in and walk it off and clear my head. When I came back I felt pretty good the rest of the game.”
Staal was good in the final minute, helping keep the Blues pinned in their own end when they wanted to pull their goalie.
“Sure, we gave up more than we wanted to in the third, but there are no style points against Western Conference teams, we don’t see these guys enough to pick them apart,” Maurice said. “We were in the right lanes, we were just too passive.”
NOTES: Three of Babchuk’s 10 career goals have been game winners. … Carolina is 12-2-2 when leading after the second period. … Patrick Eaves left after the first period with an upper body injury and did not return. … Six Hurricanes (Staal, Whitney, Samsonov, Brind’Amour, Bayda and Corvo) have played all 39 games as the halfway point of the season approaches Tuesday night. … Staal played under 20 minutes for the third time in the last four games. … The Canes scored twice on the power play for the first time in eight games.