Cam Ward ended the game Friday by slamming his goalie’s paddle against the post in anger, in disgust.
On Saturday, Ward held his arms and his paddle high, a smile on his face, victorious.
Hockey can be a brutal, frustrating game in the NHL. One night, you can play well and lose a shootout, missing out on a point, and the next game not play as well and emerge with a shootout victory and two points.
So it was for Ward and the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday as they turned back the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 at PNC Arena in a game played with energy and intensity, by two teams determined to move up the Eastern Conference standings.
Ward has had his share of misery in shootouts in his career, losing 4-3 to the Washington Capitals on Friday when the Caps’ T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov scored with ease in the shootout. And there was a ripple of uneasiness in the arena Saturday when the overtime period ended, the Canes missing out on a number of decent scoring chances, and it again went to a shootout.
But Canes coach Bill Peters went with a new leadoff man — veteran Lee Stempniak. He scored. The crowd roared.
Sam Reinhart, first up for the Sabres, was denied by Ward. Another roar.
Canes rookie Sebastian Aho, too slow in getting off his shootout shot against the Caps, went to the same move again against the Sabres’ Anders Nilsson. Quicker with the release, Aho scored this time.
That left the Sabres’ Jack Eichel in the position of having to score to extend the shootout. But Eichel, who had two game-winners against Carolina as a rookie last season, couldn’t get the puck past Ward and the Canes celebrated as if a burden of sorts had been lifted with Ward’s two stops in the shootout.
“To come out with a shootout win is kind of rare for me,” Ward said, smiling. “I told the boys I was overdue.
“It helped with ‘Stemper’ going first. I like our players going first. It gives us an opportunity to get a jump on them. Seeing it go in definitely calmed me down.”
Carolina’s seven-game home winning streak ended against the Caps. But the Canes (13-11-7) now have earned points in their past nine games at PNC Arena (8-0-1) and moved to ninth in the Eastern Conference, eight points out of playoff position.
For a long time Saturday, it appeared Joakim Nordstrom’s goal for the Canes in the first might be the difference. Nordstrom followed up a Jay McClement shot on a rush into the zone after defenseman Brett Pesce flipped the puck down ice, scoring his third of the season.
It was then a tight-checking game that became more physical, as the Sabres registered 35 hits and appeared to be the stronger team in the third.
The Canes led the Caps 3-2 in the third, only to have Oshie tie the score with six minutes left in regulation. On Saturday, it was Evander Kane striking with 2:37 left in regulation, getting a piece of a Jake McCabe shot to tip it past Ward for a 1-1 tie.
“We knew we were going to have to ramp up the game to scratch and claw to get a goal, and we did that,” said Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, whose team topped the New York Islanders on Friday.
Nilsson made six saves in the overtime, denying Jeff Skinner on a point-blank shot. Ward also came up with a key stop against Eichel, who beat the Canes in overtime last season.
“I thought we had some good looks in overtime,” Peters said. “We had the puck a lot.”
Stempniak went into the game 14-of-46 (30 percent) on career shootout shots, and Peters said the forward had lobbied a little recently to be given a look.
“We had to change it up, do something different,” Peters said.
But it finally came down to Ward having to stop the puck. He did, twice.
“Especially giving up a late goal, you don’t want to keep letting these points slip away,” Ward said.
This time, the Canes got both of them.