But few defensemen in the league have been better since the All-Star break, and Babchuk had his laser working again on this night, registering the first two-goal game of his career as the Hurricanes dumped the New Jersey Devils 4-2 Wednesday.
“He’s got a huge shot, and when he gets a chance to step into it he’s been real good,” coach Paul Maurice said of his 6-foot-5 defenseman, who scored his 10th and 11th goals. “A lot of that is confidence and he’s scored enough this year where he wants to puck. There are not a lot of guys who want to stand in front of his shot.”
The Canes, playing eight of their final 11 regular-season games at the RBC Center, began their final playoff push in fine fashion, winning for the sixth straight time at home and scoring three power-play goals for the second time in the last seven games.
“We had three days off and you can begin to worry about how the team is going to respond because we’ve been playing so much lately, but the guys were prepared, we were ready to go,” said Cam Ward, who stopped 40 of 42 shots.
“We’ve been working hard and we’ve said all along we’re confident with the guys we have in this locker room, the skill, the character. We’re really bringing it together and it’s hard to believe we only have 10 games left. If we play the way we played tonight in those last 10 games I like our chances.”
The torrid Devils, second in the Eastern Conference after going 22-5 over their last 27 games, gave record-setting goalie Martin Brodeur the night off, meaning former Hurricane Kevin Weekes was in net. Weekes had won his last five starts, allowing just seven goals, but the Canes had three in the opening 40 minutes to take command and jump three points ahead of ninth-place and idle Florida – a club Carolina plays on March 23.
“Five hundred fifty two (wins) speaks for itself, so we’re glad he got that record last night,” Sergei Samsonov said when asked about facing New Jersey without the future Hall of Famer in net.
Babchuk scored Carolina’s first and third goals, while Eric Staal added a second-period power-play score of his own for a team-leading 34th goal. Samsonov sealed it with his 15th of the season with 7:46 left after he started a forecheck in the corner, then raced to the front of the net and put a nice move on Weekes.
“Yeah, my shot was good, but more importantly we got the two points,” said Babchuk, who has the second-best plus-minus rating for defensemen since the All-Star break. “Everybody feels more confident when you play more and I’ve tried to take advantage of it.”
“Anton is just getting more and more confidence,” added Samsonov. “He’s reading the plays, he’s jumping into the offense without sacrificing defensively – and it’s nice when the puck goes in.”
Ward, starting his 19th straight game, was sparkling in net again, improving to 11-6-2 during that stretch as the Canes have now registered points in 11 of their last 14 games.
Carolina saw the Devils narrow the margin to 2-1 when Niclas Wallin was called for a cross-check, and four seconds later Tim Gleason batted the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty as the Canes went down two men for almost two minutes. It looked as if the Canes would kill off the 5-on-3, but Zach Parise’s crossing pass went off the leg of Dennis Seidenberg and past Ward, who had made several good stops early in the two-man advantage.
But Babchuk’s blast with 38 seconds left in the period gave the Canes their third power-play tally of the night and a two-goal lead heading into the third.
“Anton just has a great shot and if he gets it through from the point there’s a good chance it’s going in the net,” said Ward.
The Canes jumped on the Devils, who played Wednesday night, outshooting New Jersey 9-1 in the opening six minutes before cashing in on a Babchuk power play goal midway through the period. It was the eighth time in the last nine games in which Carolina has scored at least one goal with the man advantage.
It was key getting on top of New Jersey since the Devils are a league-best 34-3-2 when scoring first.
“It changes some of what they do and when you get up two it forces them to open their game up and try some things maybe they wouldn’t,” Maurice said of his club getting the early lead. “And it was confidence for us coming off the road. You want to have a good start. Our first period was very solid.”
NOTES: Carolina improved to 19-2-2 when Staal scores a goal. … Rod Brind’Amour’s assist on Carolina’s first goal moved him into sole possession of 48th place on the all-time NHL scoring list with 1,153 points. … Babchuk’s first goal gave the Canes 10 players with at least 10 goals. … With 32 shots, this was the 16th straight game Carolina has registered at least 30 on opposing nets. ... Staal has 25 points in his last 16 games. … Scott Walker missed his sixth straight game. … Erik Cole has nine points in seven games since returning to Carolina from Edmonton at the trade deadline.