By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – Bill Peters has preached all season that the Carolina Hurricanes will be successful when everyone is going – in the same direction, with the same pace and focus, and with no passengers.
On Thursday night, goaltender Cam Ward’s 27-save performance led the Hurricanes to a 2-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens at PNC Arena.
While opposing netminder Carey Price also made his share of key stops, 28 of them, his defense’s inability to clear traffic or jump on loose pucks allowed Brett Pesce and Brock McGinn the opportunities to score and lead the Hurricanes offense accordingly.
Carolina executed as well as it could in all three zones; not perfectly, but well enough and with poise and diligence, especially in front of its veteran keeper.
“A lot of guys found a way to contribute,” Peters said.
“When we needed them, one of them was there – it was big tonight for sure. There’s a lot of good things, and obviously things we can get better at moving forward.”
Ward earned his first-ever shutout over the Canadiens, his second of the season, and 27th of his career as Carolina’s record improved to 24-19-8.
Owning 56 points, the Hurricanes moved into a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers for the final wildcard spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Following a scoreless first period, Pesce’s point shot made it through traffic and tipped off Price’s blocker and gave Carolina a 1-0 lead at the 2:43 mark of the second.
Pesce’s first of the season, assisted by Elias Lindholm and Marcus Kruger, remained the difference as both teams traded scoring opportunities and were even in shots on goal at 18 apiece heading into the second intermission.
Special teams were not a factor in producing offense for either team on this night as three power play opportunities went unclaimed for Carolina while the penalty kill fended off Montreal’s lone man-advantage of the game.
It was puck possession and tenacity that created even-strength scoring opportunities such as McGinn’s eighth goal of the season with 5:09 remaining that finalized the game’s result.
A top-shelf finish set up on a backhander from Justin Williams out of the corner to Price’s right side, the play was initiated from a dump-in off linemate Victor Rask.
Rask (9-9), along with Derek Ryan (11-15) and Jordan Staal (10-14) led the Hurricanes to claim 79 percent of all draws taken.
What they couldn’t earn in first-chance possession opportunities, the Habs worked to gain back through force as 54 total hits helped in winning puck battles and earned scoring opportunities.
However, the Carolina netminder came up with the saves when needed.
“I’m having fun with it,” Ward said of his recent play.
“I mean I’m not trying to read into too much. [Goalie coach] Mike Bales has been really good for me; even Scott Darling’s been great for me. We’re supporting one another and trying to help this team win. I don’t wanna feel like I’ve got to go out there and be spectacular – just enough to get these guys the saves that they need.”
The Hurricanes’ ability to fend off Montreal’s attacks, included clamping down on anyone getting close to Ward who attempted to jam a loose puck in after he made the initial stop.
Carolina exhibited more toughness in a number of crease scrums as was pointed out by both Peters and Pesce.
“We take that to heart,” Pesce said.
“We know we need to be tougher for him (Ward) because he’s playin’ so great. Guys are gonna try and get in the crease and kind of rattle him, so we gotta be out there to protect him.”
Earning an assist on McGinn’s goal, Williams talked of how Ward’s goalkeeping balanced the team’s efforts in sweeping the three-game season series over the Habs.
“He was great tonight,” Williams said.
“He’s an unbelievable goalie and a guy we certainly have a lot of faith in. I think Cam masked a lot of our shortcomings tonight. They had a couple of chances that maybe didn’t look that tough on TV, but they were tough, with tips and traffic. He was incredible for us.”
After losing four straight at home, Carolina has now added competitive memory to its understanding of how to win close games in its building.
Following a crushing 4-3 final-seconds loss to Washington back on Jan. 12th, Williams was hard on himself in not containing, rather than chasing, the final Capitals rush that led to the deciding goal against.
When asked how far this team has progressed in just over two weeks, he spoke to the learning curve that the Hurricanes are still working on.
“You draw experiences from wins and losses.
“It’s the little things that will make you successful. These are big games that will help us down the stretch; knowing that we can win close games. We’ve done it quite a few different ways lately.”
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport