To reach the playoffs, the Carolina Hurricanes must win the close games, the ones with the score tight and the tension thick in the third period.
The Canes did that again Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens at PNC Arena, getting a 27-save shutout from Cam Ward and goals from Brett Pesce and Brock McGinn.
Pesce’s goal, at 2:43 of the second period, was the defenseman’s first of the season. McGinn, who has had some tough luck this season on scoring chances, then gave the Canes breathing room with his eighth with 5:09 left in regulation as the Canes won their third straight game and finished off a season sweep of the Habs (20-25-6).
The Canes and Philadelphia Flyers, Metropolitan Division teams that still have not played this season, have matching 24-19-8 records and 56 points. The Flyers held on to the second wild-card playoff position in the Eastern Conference with their 24 regulation and overtime wins to the Canes’ 21, the tiebreaker.
“It’s crunch time,” Ward said. “All you have to do it look at the standings and we’ve kind of preached that this is our playoffs.”
Forward Justin Williams, who had the primary assist on McGinn’s goal, credited Ward with doing much of the hard work Thursday. The shutout was Ward’s second of the season and 27th of his career -- his first against Montreal -- and he achieved it with some calm, poised play in net, outplaying the Habs’ Carey Price.
“I think Cam masked a lot of our shortcomings tonight,” Williams said. “They had a couple of chances that maybe didn’t look that tough but were tough, with tips and traffic.
“He was incredible for us. … He’s a guy we certainly have a lot of faith in.”
The “book” on Ward is to test the goalie glove high. But the veteran, now 15-6-2 this season, made a handful of sharp glove saves.
“He was the best player on the ice tonight,” Pesce said.
On Tuesday, the Canes used third-period goals from Sebastian Aho and Victor Rask to squeeze past the Ottawa Senators 2-1. A week after a 6-5 shootout in Montreal, Ward and the Canes winning, the two teams were locked up in a 1-0 game — the Canes ahead — in the third period Thursday.
Pesce’s goal was his first since Jan. 14, 2017, when he scored against the New York Islanders. He had gone 81 games without a goal — the final 39 last season, the first 42 this season, but his shot from the right point got past Price.
Neither team had many scoring chances in the first period and the Habs did not have a shot on goal until 5:12 was left.
“You had that feeling this would be a low-scoring game,” Ward said.
While the Canes’ defensive-zone work was too loose in the game in Montreal, they did a better job Thursday fighting for the puck and and being physical in front of Ward. Rookie defenseman Haydn Fleury had perhaps his best game of the season, blocking four shots and giving the Canes some physical play.
Canes coach Bill Peters would not commit to starting Ward again Friday when the Canes host the Detroit Red Wings in the third game of the eight-game homestand. But it could be Ward again. And another tight game.
“These are big games that will help us down the stretch, knowing we can win close games, and we’ve done it quite a few different ways lately,” Williams said.