On a night in which Paul Maurice became the 25th coach in NHL history to win at least 400 games, the Canes won their fourth in a row, fifth straight at the RBC Center and eighth of the last 10 to remain within sniffing distance of playoff contention with one game left before the Olympic break, beating Buffalo 4-3 in overtime.
Carolina has 22 games remaining and is 10 points out of a playoff spot after a horrible 5-17-5 start.
“I don’t spend any time thinking about (the playoffs), just New Jersey coming up because if you try to do any more you don’t enjoy winning as much because you wished you had done it a month-and-a-half ago,” Maurice said. “We’ll just get ready for the next game and we’ll see what happens.”
The odds are still stacked against the Canes, who would have to jump three teams in their division alone just to get close to postseason contention. However, there are a series of teams in the Eastern Conference who continue to hover around the .500 mark and haven’t separated themselves from the pack.
“It’s a long season, and you can’t count yourself out until you’re mathematically counted out,” said Legace, who improved to 3-0 since Cam Ward left the lineup with back pain, stopping 29 of 32 shots. “We struggled through Christmas, but I really do think it was a jelling period and now the guys are starting to come together and playing like a team every single night. This is the way we can play. This has been great to watch.”
It was the second straight 4-3 win over the Sabres in the last six days as Carolina got the game-winner from Sergei Samsonov when Buffalo defenseman Steve Montador fell behind his own net and coughed the puck up to Brandon Sutter, who completed the first three-point night of his career with a perfect backhanded pass to his Russian winger in the slot.
Samsonov made no mistake in beating Ryan Miller 3:13 into OT as Carolina rallied from an early 2-0 deficit, and continued to apply the pressure even after the Sabres tied the score with 7:09 left in regulation on Derek Roy’s second goal of the game.
“The tables have really turned,” Sutter said when asked about Montador taking a spill behind the net and losing the puck at a key moment. “We were having some tough luck at the beginning of the year and when something like that goes our way it’s a good sign.”
Carolina couldn’t connect on a 3-0 break as Buffalo was caught in a poor line change midway through the second, with Miller stopping Tuomo Ruutu. But 15 seconds later, Stephane Yelle broke in 2-on-1 with Ruutu and beat Miller far side as the Canes took a 3-2 lead into the third.
In addition to the rare three-against-none rush in the second, the Canes also over-passed on a 4-on-1 break out in the first and failed to get a shot on Miller.
“All of the coaches were trying to figure the last time we had seen a 3-0,” Maurice said. “The 4-on-1 we had seen, but that was in an All-Star game. A 3-0 we had not seen and it was pretty obvious that neither had the three guys who were going down on that either.”
Carolina’s fast starts at home ended quickly when Buffalo scored on its first shot after a turnover deep in the offensive zone as Derek Roy fought off a check in the slot by Staal and beat Legace. Roy now has 26 points in 22 career games against the Canes, including 12 goals.
Buffalo took a 2-0 lead 14 minutes in when Jochen Hecht’s harmless looking shot from the far boards ricocheted off the skate of a passing Steven Goertzen and past a stunned Legace.
However, the early deficit didn’t deter the Canes, who stormed back over the final 3:31 of the period with power-play goals by Sutter and Ray Whitney, who netted his first in eight games with 1.1 seconds left in the period.
“That has been just the face of us over the last two months now, we just never give up,” Legace said of the comeback. “We just put our heads down and went back to work. It is amazing.”
“We deserved to win that game,” Maurice said. “It was a close enough game, but I thought in the second period we were good and we had a lot of real good offense and a lot of real good motion in Buffalo’s end.”
NOTES: Jussi Jokinen assisted on Carolina’s second goal to extend his point streak to eight straight games. … Tuomo Ruutu registered his 200th NHL point on Sutter’s goal. … Whitney passed Erik Cole for sixth on Carolina all-time list of power-play goals with 35. … Yelle’s goal was his first against Buffalo in 24 career games. … Rod Brind’Amour won 10 of 11 faceoffs. … Yelle’s four shots were a season-high. ... Legace improved to 5-0 in his career against Buffalo.