Carolina won a season-high fourth straight with a 3-2 victory over the Devils on Tuesday night, continuing its methodical climb up the Eastern Conference standings under new coach Paul Maurice, moving six games over .500.
The Canes, completely healthy for the first time in 140 regular-season games, now have points in 12 of 16 games under Maurice, using a suddenly stifling defense, great goaltending by Cam Ward and a rejuvenated power play under the direction of associate coach Ron Francis.
“It is important to beat teams ahead of you in the standings, it gives you confidence that you’re in the chase, that you’re not just necessarily fighting teams behind you, you are looking at teams ahead of you,” Maurice said.
The victory moved Carolina just two points behind the Devils, who are seeded sixth in the East at the halfway point of the season.
“It’s so tight right now, if you don’t keep playing well you’re going to be down to the 10th, 11th or 12th spot, so we’ve just got to keep it rolling,” Tuomo Ruutu said.
The Canes built a 2-0 lead through the first two periods, then sealed the victory when Ruutu scored off the rush midway through the third, capitalizing on a nice pass from defenseman Anton Babchuk, who has points in four of the last five games.
“Tonight was a huge win, and maybe more importantly the fans that have come to see us play have seen us win some games, we’ve been pretty good at home,” Maurice said. “We need that. Our ace in the hole is how loud this building gets when we get going. We haven’t showed them fourth gear yet, but we’re working on it.”
New Jersey spoiled Ward’s shutout bid when it scored on the power play with 7:48 left after Justin Williams was called for a questionable roughing penalty in front of his goalie. The Devils added an empty-net goal in the final 22 seconds to make it close, giving the Canes their 15th one-goal win out of 21 victories.
“We were a real good team until we took that penalty, and then after that they are still a pretty good team so I’m not all that upset about two goals going in,” Maurice said.
Ward improved to 8-2-1 in his last 11 games. The Carolina goalie didn’t get a ton of action, but did make two good saves on Zach Parise in the second to keep the Devils off the scoreboard through 40 minutes before allowing two late.
Sergei Samsonov gave the Canes a 2-0 lead heading into the third with the 200th goal of his career, a power-play tally with 4:45 left in the second. Samsonov’s centering pass intended for Ruutu 25 seconds into the man-advantage ricocheted off the skate of New Jersey defenseman Paul Martin and past Scott Clemmensen.
Brandon Sutter, playing against his father for the first time, hit the post just 33 seconds after the Samsonov goal and finished with three shots in eight minutes of ice time. He had just two shots in his previous five games.
“This game had a little special meaning to it (for me), but we got the win and that’s all that matters,” Sutter said. “I thought I played pretty well.”
When asked if he would ask his father for a grade on his performance, the younger Sutter shot back: “If he was paying attention to me that’s probably why they lost.”
Father Brent Sutter said his son played a solid game.
“Once the game got started, which I figured it would be, my focus was doing the right things behind the bench, his focus was to play,” Brent Sutter said.
“It was good to see Brandon play against his dad and even better to see a smile on his face,” added Ward.
Carolina served notice early it was ready to skate as Rod Brind’Amour beat Bryce Salvador to a dump in, circled behind the net and sent a centering pass to a streaking Ray Whitney, who gave the Canes a 1-0 lead just 1:03 into the game.
The defense was solid again in the opening period, allowing just seven shots on Ward and not taking a penalty.
NOTES: The only other Eastern Conference team the Canes haven’t played so far is Buffalo, who hosts Carolina on Jan. 17. … Samsonov has six points in his last four games. … New Jersey came into the game 8-1 against the Southeast Division. … Matt Cullen won 11 of 15 face-offs. … Carolina is 5-for-18 on the power play over the last four games. … New Jersey outscored the Canes 16-5 last season. … Ward moved within three wins of 100 for his career.