Surrendering one goal in each of the last three wins over Boston and both New York teams, the Carolina goalie faced off against one of the NHL’s most explosive offensives Saturday night and stoned them cold en route to a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
The 6,896 who braved the terrible road conditions in the Triangle were treated to a spectacular performance in net by Ward, who stopped 39 shots, ending a six-day stretch in which he made 129 of 134 saves as the Canes won their season-best fourth in a row.
“It has been a fun week, but it’s always more fun when you’re winning hockey games and playing well,” said Ward. “Tonight, we were playing against a very, very good team, arguably one of the best teams in the NHL, and to be able to grab a win is a big confidence booster for this hockey team. We’ll be in good spirits going out west.”
The Canes closed the month 9-5 for the second-best January in franchise history and now head on a four-game road trip 10 points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot with 28 games remaining.
“This is what we all expected,” Matt Cullen said when asked about the team’s play during a streak in which the Canes have outscored opponents 18-5. “It’s disappointing that it comes so late, but at the same time it’s there and we have a lot of pride. We want to win games, regardless of where we’re at.”
Ward closed his bravo performance on a stare down with 60-point winger Patrick Kane, who was left wide open in front of the cage with 47 seconds left. Ward waited him out for what seemed like an eternity, then snared the puck in his glove to hold off one of hockey’s best teams.
“That save was completely high end when you consider how much time (Kane) had,” coach Paul Maurice said as the Blackhawks were skating 6-on-4 and in desperation mode after pulling their goalie and watching Niclas Wallin head to the box with a holding call with 1:56 left. “We’re still interrogating our forwards and our D as to why we would leave that man there alone, but that just shows the confidence our players have in Cam Ward.”
“We’re a completely different team when he’s playing the way he’s playing,” added Cullen. “He’s been the No. 1 difference in us turning things around.”
Maurice has been singing the praises of the Brandon Sutter, Chad LaRose, Jiri Tlusty line since putting them together, and it was that group that scored the game-winning goal midway through the third just 1:25 after former Carolina Hurricane Andrew Ladd had tied the score at 2-2.
“It was really important because I don’t think they had their best first two periods, and part of it was they got caught out on the ice for 1:50 at the start of the second period and it’s very difficult to recover from that and they were also playing against one of the most dynamic lines,” Maurice said. “It’s good that they can contribute to a win more than just keeping the other team off the score sheet.”
Cullen then tipped another one past a stunned Cristobal Huet just 26 seconds after the Sutter goal for a two-goal lead.
“That’s the confidence I’ve been talking about,” Jussi Jokinen said. “Earlier in the year, in that 14-game losing streak, it felt like every time we tied it up the other team would get the go-ahead goal and right now we’re getting those goals. I hope we can keep playing with that confidence and see how many wins we can get.”
Ward allowed a game-tying goal to Marian Hossa 6:46 into the second, but stoned the Slovak winger several more times from point-blank range as well as several other Blackhawks as one of the best teams in the Western Conference began to buzz around the Carolina net, piling up 14 scoring chances.
Still, the Canes countered again late in the period as Eric Staal extended his point streak to eight straight games when his cross-circle pass found a wide open Jokinen, who was able to sneak his shot past Huet. The Chicago goalie almost made a remarkable stick save on Jokinen, but couldn’t hang on as he juggled the puck and it trickled across the goal line.
Ward kept Carolina in the game with 11 saves in the first, including several of the spectacular variety over the final 2:16, allowing the Canes to take the lead when Sergei Samsonov slammed home a rebound with 9.3 seconds left. Samsonov now has four goals in seven games since returning from a seven-game injury layoff.
The Canes have now held opponents scoreless in the last four first periods and have outscored teams 9-1 in the opening 20 minutes over the last six games.
NOTES: The Canes are 8-0-2 against Chicago in the last 10 meetings and the Blackhawks haven’t won in North Carolina since January 1998. … Jokinen matched his career high of 17 goals, accomplished in his rookie season with Dallas in 2005-06. … Samsonov has 15 points in 14 career games against Chicago. … Andrew Alberts had two assists for the second time this season and was the game’s third star. … Staal has 13 points in his eight-game point streak and 38 points in 29 games since returning from injury. … Ray Whitney’s seven-game point streak ended. … Cullen won 9 of 11 faceoffs.