On the day when Triangle sports legend Sidney Lowe stepped down as NC State's head basketball coach, another key cog in a past championship run carried his current team to a huge road victory. Cam Ward's 40-save shutout against No. 8 seed Buffalo kept Carolina's playoff hopes alive, leaving the Canes just two points back of the Sabres for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Here are five observations from Tuesday's 1-0 win.
1. Ward's performance was nothing short of remarkable. While the Sabres certainly had their chances to score (see Thomas Vanek's undressing of Derek Joslin that was shot wide), Ward had the poise, fundamentals and fight that observers have come to expect of him in big games. Ward hasn't been perfect recently — the goal he allowed to Derek MacKenzie in the loss to Columbus comes to mind — but he has kept Carolina in games of late despite the Canes' inability to score. If Carolina manages to grab a playoff spot, one need look no further than his shutout performance Tuesday as a pivotal moment in the season.2. Tuesday's game was arguably the Hurricanes' biggest regular season matchup in nearly three years, so it was a bit surprising that coach Paul Maurice inserted Jerome Samson in place of Troy Bodie on the fourth line. That left Patrick Dwyer centering two rookies with a combined 38 NHL games under their belts. Maurice limited their ice time — Samson played 5:48, Bowman 4:46 — but the duo, along with Dwyer, had some shifts that has to have Maurice thinking he might be on to something. The combination Dwyer's hustle and defensive smarts, Samson's corner work and Bowman's lethal shot may not sound like your normal fourth-line skill sets, but the trio does have the potential to win shifts in the opposition's zone and perhaps even contribute offensively via goals or drawn penalties.
3. Speaking of rookies, both Joslin and Jeff Skinner looked good playing in a hugely important game in a hostile environment. Yes, Joslin was left looking for his jock on Vanek's aforementioned scoring opportunity, but it was his shot in the first period that was blocked and eventually collected by Brandon Sutter for the game's only goal, and he otherwise added grit to the back end and didn't make any glaring mistakes.
Skinner jumped on to Eric Staal's line early in the game and looked like his normal, amazing self. He led all players with six shots on goal, and he created scoring opportunities with his shifty skating and willingness to head to the dirty areas of the Sabres zone. He drew three of Carolina's five power play opportunities and is averaging a league-best 2.6 penalties drawn per 60 minutes. With an equally important game on tap Wednesday, Skinner will again need to be threat if Carolina is to knock off the Maple Leafs.
4. Carollna's power play continues to stumble and, despite the positive outcome of Tuesday's game, needs correcting if the Hurricanes want to make their playoff hopes a reality. The trouble is, it's often hard to find out where things are going wrong. There are sequences when the team struggles to even enter the zone or regain possession after a dump in, but other times the team is getting chances and simply not converting. The good news for Carolina is Toronto, Wednesday's opponent, ranks just 26th on the penalty kill this season, including a fourth-worst 75.4 percent kill rate on the road. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who is expected to start for Toronto, has struggled away from home, going just 2-5-1 with a 3.81 goals-against average and .881 save percentage on the road this season. Carolina scored five times on just 28 shots against him Jan. 24, converting two of seven man-advantage opportunities en route to a 6-4 win.
5. While Staal was held in check against Buffalo, the Canes other leaders came through. Sutter broke a 16-game goalless streak to notch the only tally of the game, and Ward earned his third shutout. Tim Gleason had a quietly solid night, while Bryan Allen, who was brought in to provide physicality and experience on the back end, did both in helping to shut down the Sabres offense. Allen's four blocked shots and Gleason's four hits were each tops among Carolina defenders, and Sutter and Ward were key cogs in the Hurricanes penalty kill continuing to be as hot as the power play is cold.