With a regulation loss, the Canes would have fallen behind the Sabres into ninth, underscoring the make-or-break nature of the evening.
“This is why you play the game – for games like this and these playoff-mentality tight games in a tight playoff race,” said McBain, who also recorded an assist in the second period. “These are fun ones to be a part of.”
McBain’s winner marked the Hurricanes' only lead of the night, as they twice battled back from one-goal deficits in the second period. Fellow defenseman Joni Pitkanen started the play by gaining the zone with speed before sending a pass back to the trailing McBain. With Eric Staal and Cory Stillman at the net, the 23-year-old’s shot was partially blocked by Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller before squeezing through.
“It was good that a defenseman scored, because they had plenty of opportunities to shoot pucks and I think we passed a bunch off,” said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. “I’m glad that Jamie fired that one.”
Asked if that was the biggest goal of his career, McBain didn’t have to think for very long.
During what had been a nail-biting third period for both sides, McBain took what could have been a costly holding penalty with just over 10 minutes left. The Canes were able to kill that off, just as they were Staal’s tripping minor with just 3:39 on the clock.
“As soon as I got my stick in there, I knew it wasn’t good the way he was stumbling,” said Staal of his late infraction. “It’s never a good feeling when you take one with less than five minutes left, especially in a tie game against a team like Buffalo.”
The Hurricanes’ penalty killing was also the story in the first period, with Buffalo having nothing to show from three power plays, making the home team a perfect five-for-five on the night. Over its last nine games, Carolina has allowed just two power-goals in 23 chances, good for a 91.3 percent success rate.
“We had some great penalty kills, goaltender on out,” said Maurice, making sure to mention Cam Ward, who was stellar again with 27 saves.
In particular, Maurice made a point of calling attention to his newest player, defenseman Bryan Allen, who was playing his second game with the team following Monday’s trade with Florida. The 6-foot-5, 226-pound blue liner showed his trademark mean streak on several occasions over his 17:24 of ice time, including 4:09 shorthanded.
“He was huge on the penalty kill, literally and figuratively,” said Maurice.
The Canes were twice able to shake off the nerves associated with the big game when Buffalo took leads in the second period. First, Steve Montador’s opener was answered just over two minutes later by Jiri Tlusty’s rebound goal. Then, Chad LaRose was able to respond by taking a Jeff Skinner centering feed off a misplayed puck by Miller just 1:46 after Brad Boyes scored his second goal in two games as a Sabre.
“We stayed with our game, and that’s the kind of mindset we want to have regardless of the score,” said Staal.
The Hurricanes continued a stretch of strong play against the teams near them in the standings, with an overtime loss to the Rangers the only blemish in a second half that saw them win three times against Atlanta before taking the first of three remaining games against the Sabres.
“The best part of this is we seem to respond to that big-game feel, and that’s what you want from a young team,” said Maurice. “You want to come to the rink excited about the size of the game, excited about what’s on the line and not squeezing their sticks and feeling it.”
The Canes will have precious little time to enjoy arguably their biggest victory of the season, as they immediately depart for Chicago to take on the surging Blackhawks, who have won a season-high six consecutive games in the midst of an even tighter race to the postseason out west.
As long as he’s feeling up to it, Maurice said that Ward should make his 25th consecutive start in goal for that game, which is just three shy of his career high, set last season.
NOTES: Carolina defenseman Jay Harrison logged 4:27 of shorthanded ice time, tied with Joe Corvo for tops among defensemen, in his 100th NHL game … The Hurricanes are 11-3-2 in their last 16 home games dating back to Jan. 1 … Sabres forward Drew Stafford played his 300th NHL game … Carolina snapped Buffalo’s season-high four-game road winning streak … McBain’s effort was his second multi-point game of the season. He logged two assists on New Year’s Day against New Jersey.