The end result was a 2-1 shootout victory against the Buffalo Sabres in what was a playoff-like atmosphere at the RBC Center on Thursday night.
Ward, pulled after the first period after allowing three goals Tuesday at Ottawa, was sensational, stopping 32 shots in regulation, four more in overtime and all three in the shootout.
“He’s that good and that’s our expectation of him,” coach Paul Maurice said of Ward, who kept Carolina in this game with several point-blank saves. “We get pleased and excited when the guy performs like he did tonight. He clearly had a great game, but he’s that good. Part of his development into being an elite goaltender is being able to suffer through the aches and pains of playing a tremendous amount of games, and also the mental wear and tear that goes in with having a night where you miss a few pucks even though it’s not your fault.”
Heading into the shootout, Ward said he was confident in his game.
“It can be nerve-wracking, but tonight I made sure there was nothing but positive thoughts going through my head,” Ward said. “In my head I was thinking three saves, and that was going to do it.”
Meanwhile, Jokinen, who Rutherford acquired three weeks ago from Tampa Bay, continued his shootout prowess, beating Patrick Lalime as the second Carolina shooter. Jokinen came streaking in, then put on the brakes before finding the far side of the net. He is now 21-for-39 in his career in shootouts with seven game-deciding goals.
“Since the lockout points in shootouts can decide if you’re going to make the playoffs or not,” said Jokinen, who is now 4-for-10 this season in shootouts. “It’s something I’ve been good, spending lots of time in the summer practicing those. I’m pretty confident. I try to forget everything else and just do the things I’ve done thousands of times in practice.”
The former goalie who got in the ear of Maurice was goaltending coach Tom Barrasso, who sits in the press box with the bird’s eye view of the ice. He asked to see Michael Ryan on the top line in the third period with Eric Staal and Tuomo Ruutu. Maurice obliged and it was Ryan who set up the game-tying goal from Anton Babchuk with 12:26 left after the Canes had been outshot badly in the first two periods.
Ryan took the place of Jokinen on the top line, who was subbing for the injured Sergei Samsonov.
“Clearly (Ryan) has lots of jump right now,” Maurice said of the former leading scorer of the Albany River Rats playing in just his 12th NHL game this season. “It was his old team so he was excited. The third period was the right time (to make the change) so he wouldn’t think about it. If I start him there he thinks about it all day, that he’s going to be playing with Eric Staal. The pressure in some way was off a player like that, he had good jump and he was rolling.”
Now, with 19 games left in the regular season, the Canes are tied with Buffalo with 69 points (technically still in ninth via the NHL tie-breaking procedure), while Florida and the New York Rangers are tied with 70 points each, and Montreal has 71 points in a wild five-team Eastern Conference race for the final four playoff spots.
“We all know this is coming down to the last week, and it is for about six or seven teams,” Maurice said. “We’re not going to run the table the rest of the year, so we’re going to have to deal with games like Ottawa (a 4-2 loss) and come back and win a game like tonight.”
Carolina’s offensive game wasn’t clicking, getting just four shots in the second as the Sabres took a 1-0 lead off an innocent backhander from a poor angle that Ward couldn't glove, resulting in a rebound score with 7:17 left in the period.
The Canes were 0-for-4 on the power play through 40 minutes, managing just four shots.
Carolina survived a rough start in which they were outshot 9-1 in the opening 6:26. Captain Rod Brind’Amour saved a Buffalo goal during the early barrage on Ward when he blocked a shot in the crease with his stick.
Carolina was awarded a two-man advantage for 39 seconds less than two minutes later, but couldn’t muster much of an attack as the first 20 minutes ended scoreless.
The Canes finished 0-for-6 with the man advantage, having an opportunity to win the game in regulation with two power plays over the final 8:26, but failed to score.
NOTES: The Canes are now 6-5-2 in their black uniforms. … Samsonov missed his first game of the season with an upper body injury. … Ward started his 10th straight game in net. … Brind’Amour has gone 26 games without a goal. … Carolina has scored just 47 first-period goals in 63 games. … Defensemen Babchuk, Joe Corvo and Dennis Seidenberg combined for 17 of Carolina’s 32 shots. … Buffalo blocked 22 shots. … Babchuk has a three-game point streak. … Chad LaRose took Carolina’s only penalty, a questionable interference call in the second period.