Ward, starting his 26th straight game, stopped 33 shots, including a breakaway by Sidney Crosby and a third-period penalty shot from Evgeni Malkin as the Canes clinched a postseason berth for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in overtime.
“I’m proud of the way we’ve played the last month,” said captain Rod Brind’Amour. “We had a little meeting 20 games ago and we kind of said, ‘Let’s start our playoffs now.’ You don’t want to put too much weight in that but we seemed to kind of bear down from then on.
“We’ve gotten great goaltending and that has been the difference. Cam has just been real solid and has allowed us to make mistakes and we’re getting just timely goals. It’s a fun time to play again.”
The victory was the 11th in the row at the RBC Center and season-best eighth straight overall as the Canes improved to 95 points in the Eastern Conference playoff race. With three regular-season games left, Carolina can finished no lower than seventh and is tied with Philadelphia in a battle for fourth.
It almost seems like an impossible position to be in, considering a coaching change in early December and consecutive home losses in mid February by lopsided scores of 5-0 and 5-1. But Carolina is 23-8-2 since a season-worst five game skid, including points in 14 of the last 15 games.
“We’ve worked extremely hard to get ourselves in this position and I’m excited for everybody, but we need to bear down in these last three games, I can’t express it enough,” said Ward, who tied a franchise record with his 38th win. “What is that, 11 in a row? It just goes to show the difference our fans make. There is no question that our fans have been that seventh man for us. They have given us a lift and we’re extremely lucky as players to be able to play in front of a fan base like that.”
The Canes have outscored opponents 42-17 during their franchise-record home winning streak. During that run, Ward has allowed two or fewer goals 10 of 11 games.
“He kept it going with a huge night,” Eric Staal said of Ward, who was named the NHL’s first star for March. “Those were some huge saves against some of the toughest scorers in the league. That gives you a good chance to win at the end of the night.”
Once the game headed into overtime, it was all Carolina, with Ray Whitney beginning yet another game-winning sequence, in the end giving defenseman Anton Babchuk a clear path to the net for his laser shot and 14th goal of the season.
“We went on the attack, and sometimes when you gain control of the puck you can get them running around and they got caught trying to leave the zone,” Staal said. “Obviously, a great shot by Babchuk, burying it for us again.”
“Like I said, when you need a goal at the end of a game just throw Whitney on the ice and something is going to happen,” added coach Paul Maurice.
Babchuk said he got hit in the corner and left his stick there and was about to change it, but decided not to when he saw his team still had possession in the Pittsburgh zone.
“All of the sudden (Tim) Gleason gave me a nice flip pass and I just tried to shoot it through the guys in front of the net,” Babchuk said.
The two hottest teams in the NHL combined for 30 shots in a wildly offensive first period with the Pens going up 1-0 less than six minutes in. But Ward had a spectacular period, allowing his team to get back into the flow of the game after stopping Crosby on a breakaway.
“Cam was great on a number of occasions,” Brind’Amour said. “There were a handful of great scoring chances we gave up. Cam was the difference.”
Less than five minutes after the Ward blocker save on the league’s third-leading scorer, Staal inched closer to the 40-goal mark with his 36th off a nice pass from Erik Cole. From that point on the final six minutes of the period belonged to the Canes, who peppered Marc-Andre Fleury with several good scoring chances before heading to the locker room tied 1-1.
Chad LaRose gave the Canes a 2-1 lead just 57 seconds into the second before Jordan Staal tied it up 3:34 into the third to set the stage for yet another game-winning blast by Babchuk. But not before Ward stoned NHL-scoring leader Malkin on a penalty shot with 8:17 left in regulation.
“I thought this was possible because we’ve got a good group of players and we have a lot of talent, and when talent starts putting hard work together on a consistent basis you are going to win most of your games,” Brind’Amour said. “I didn’t expect to battle off this many in a row, but I did expect us to be playing in the summer.”NOTES: Carolina is 10-5-1 against the Pens since the start of the 2005-06 season. … Ward is 18-6-2 during his 26-consecutive game starting streak. … Staal played in his 333rd straight game. … Matt Cullen missed his fifth game with a lower body injury. … Tim Conboy was back in the lineup with Patrick Eaves sidelined with an upper body injury. … The Canes won their five in a row wearing black, outscoring opponents 17-6. … Carolina improved to 24-14 in one-goal games. … Brind’Amour saw his seven-game point streak end, but won 12 of 16 faceoffs