Ladies and gentlemen, you can officially start your playoff beards. The Carolina Hurricanes are returning to postseason play. The team won their eighth straight game, and franchise record 11th in a row at home as they defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-2 in overtime.
Anton Babchuk rifled in the all important game-winning goal, but this game belonged to goalie Cam Ward.
Ward stopped a breakaway shot by Sidney Crosby. He stopped a penalty shot attempt by the league's top scorer, Evgeni Malkin. He even stopped one shot while laying on his back after he lost his stick. To say that the goalie was "in the zone" would be an understatement.
The Penguins jumped on the Canes early as Tyler Kennedy got open and backhanded a shot past Ward about five minutes into the game. The visitors seemed to have some extra energy early and caused several Carolina turnovers, but the home team came storming back later in the period. Once again it was "Erik to Eric" for another score. Erik Cole took a pass from Tuomo Ruutu and skated behind the net. Then he found Eric Staal right in front and Staal got the puck past Fleury to tie the game.
Staal now has 24 points in the last 16 games.
In the opening minute of the second period, Chad LaRose would continue his hot streak as he took advantage of superior passing by Ray Whitney and Jussi Jokinen, for his 19th goal of the season. The "Wizard" dropped a fancy pass to Jokinen who found an open LaRose at the left slot. The winger, who had two goals on Thursday, blasted his shot past Fleury to give the Hurricanes the lead.
The team was able to hold onto the fragile lead until the third period when Jordan Staal used a lightning quick release to beat Ward and tie the score. The Penguins would control a good part of the final period, but could not solve the NHL's first star for March. Malkin broke free and got a decent shot attempt off, but was still awarded a penalty shot when Tim Gleason tried to wrap him up. The goalie ended up stopping both Malkin shots though, as the Russian star seemed to be undecided as he skated in alone.
The Hurricanes were awarded a powerplay of their own for the final two minutes of the game when Bill Guerin tripped Tuomo Ruutu, but they were unable to take advantage of it, and the game went into overtime.
Carolina dominated the extra period as if they were still on the powerplay and had multiple chances to win it. Finally, Tim Gleason guided the puck over to Babchuk, and the blueliner knocked in his 14th of the season for the game winner.
It was not the best game for the Hurricanes as the Penguins controlled play for large chunks of time and had higher quality scoring chances. But it was still a fast-paced, up and down exciting hockey game. The difference was Cam Ward, as he stopped 33 of the 35 shots he faced. The goalie is now 18-6-2 during his 26 consecutive game streak.
Anton Babchuk had been quiet for a couple of games, but he has been another player who has been red hot the past month or so. "Babs" has scored 10 goals in the past 20 games. No doubt he will get a big raise during the offseason from his current million dollar contract, but will it be with the Canes?
Eric Staal had another great game. When the Pens took the lead, you could see him trying to assert himself and take over the game. His line was able to help contain the high scoring Pittsburgh superstars.
Malkin and Crosby were both pointless and finished with a -2. Were they cherry picking while waiting for their breakways?
Ex-Hurricane Craig Adams had two nice attempts on goal which Ward made tough saves on.
One can not say enough about Cam Ward. John Forslund said after the game that he is the hottest goalie in the NHL right now. Couple that with his history of winning the Conn Smythe and the Stanley Cup, and at this point no one wants to face this team in the playoffs.
The Canes won 60% of the game's faceoffs, with Rod Brind'Amour winning 75%. (12 of 16)
Dennis Seidenberg led the team with five blocked shots. Tuomo Ruutu had two takeaways and Scott Walker led the way with five hits.
Playoff tickets go on sale to the public on Tuesday morning at the RBC box office.
A couple of post game interviews :
Anton Babchuk says that making it to the playoffs and the play of Cam Ward is "unbelievable".
Eric Staal gives the crowd more props.