Carolina still managed only two goals en route to a 2-0 victory, but from the drop of the puck this may have been the team’s most dominating and fast-paced performance in quite some time, outshooting Atlanta 40-19 as Cam Ward picked up his third shutout of the season.
“We had great energy and jump, and most importantly we tried to do simple things as fast as we could so we looked real quick,” Maurice said of the opening 20 minutes in which the Canes forced the Thrashers into looking more like an AHL team. “Then it was the advantage of playing in Carolina. It’s the one special thing about playing here, the crowd will give you feedback when you’re going and they were great, and then it just started to snowball into our most aggressive, our best period of the year. Clearly, (the Thrashers) were on their heels.”
The Canes scored on two breakaway goals in the first period, outshooting Atlanta 21-4 with 12 different players registering at least one shot. The 21 shots were the most in any period this season.
Carolina was the only team in the NHL without a shorthanded goal but notched its second in as many games with Eric Staal off for tripping as Matt Cullen beat Kari Lehtonen to the stick side 7:41 into the period.
“Let’s keep this rolling, let’s take this out to Vancouver,” Staal joked of the team’s recent shorthanded success after a 49-game drought. “Maybe we can get another one. It was a good read by Matt to bust up the ice and get into an opening.”
Maurice said the coaching staff made a major switch on the penalty kill two weeks ago, trying to add more speed with players like Cullen and Staal.
“It has paid off, we’re not spending as much time in our own end,” Maurice said. “And some confidence has grown. Cullen and (Chad) LaRose are a nice pair together, they know when they can get into holes.”
The Canes kept pressing after the Cullen goal, resulting in constant pressure on a besieged Kari Lehtonen and Ray Whitney’s score after taking a terrific outlet pass from Cullen. The puck almost got too far in front of Whitney, but Lehtonen chose to stay in his net instead of trying to beat the Carolina winger to the rubber. That was a mistake as Whitney knifed the puck under the pads of the Atlanta goalie for a 2-0 lead heading into the second.
Ward, starting his 16th straight game, didn’t get much work in the opening 30 minutes, but preserved his shutout bid midway through the second when he made the save of the game – a sliding pad kick-out of a backhanded scoring attempt by Rich Peverley – and then held Atlanta at bay during a power play in the final five minutes of the period.
“For a goaltender these could be tough games when you are only facing 19, 20 shots, but I felt sharp all night despite not getting much work,” Ward said.
“We’ve made a point that we want to play better at home because this is crunch time, we’ve got to take care of business, and once again it was a tremendous atmosphere here.”
The Canes now head to the west coast for a three-game trip with some major momentum, having won four of their last five to finish the month of January one game over .500 and in Eastern Conference playoff position with 31 games left.
“I think this is awesome,” LaRose said when asked about the close battle for the final two playoffs spots in the east with Buffalo, Florida and Pittsburgh. “It’s game seven of the playoffs without the pressure. It’s feeling really good and we know this is our push time.”
Once again, LaRose was one of the best players on the ice, assisting on Cullen’s goal and registering a team-best six shots in more than 15 minutes of ice time.
“Chad is an energy guy,” Staal said. “If he’s skating and moving his feet he’s going to get the building energized. We need him to play that consistently every night.”
“We would like all of our guys to play at that level because the roof would come off this place,” added Maurice. “He’s earned it, and it wasn’t easy because I wasn’t overly kind to him early on when I got here. He handled it right and proved to me he should be playing in the top nine.”NOTES: Maurice logged his 700th game with the franchise, only the 14th in NHL history to coach that many games with the same club. … Whitney moved within five goals of 300 for his career. … Cullen has four points in his last two games. … Ward is 9-7 in his 16 straight starts. … Carolina is now 13-10-3 since Maurice took over on Dec. 3. … The Canes haven’t scored more than three goals in a win since beating Atlanta on Dec. 26 – a span of 16 games. … Maurice said Dennis Seidenberg would not make the trip out West because of his nagging groin injury. … LaRose’s six shots tied a season high.