Before the game, the Pittsburgh Penguins were talking about needing a victory, needing the two points, needing to move into playoff position in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
And this from the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
Not an ideal situation for the Carolina Hurricanes, but the outcome Thursday in Pittsburgh was more than ideal for the Canes, who came away with a 4-0 victory that earned goalie Cam Ward his first shutout of the season.
The Canes moved into playoff position Tuesday, albeit by picking up a point in a sour 5-4 overtime loss to Washington. The Pens were coming off a 5-1 road win over the Philadelphia Flyers in a Metropolitan Division game, and would have taken the wild-card spot from the Canes with a win.
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“Our division is a bit of a dogfight and has been the past couple of years,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “To keep people behind you, you have to win the head-to-head games.”
The Canes (19-13-8) did Thursday and now have a two-point lead over the New York Islanders and three ahead of the Pens for the conference’s second wild-card playoff spot.
As victories go, this one was pretty air-tight.
The Canes outshot the Pens and had considerable offensive-zone time. They won the puck battles. They were quicker to the puck.
“They played a super-tough game on us,” Pens goalie Matt Murray said. “They were on us all night. That’s their strength and we knew it was coming but they just had more jam than we did.”
In the defensive zone, they were better positionally than they have been in some recent games. Pens captain Sidney Crosby did not have a shot in the game, and the Canes blocked 22 Pens shots, five by rookie defenseman Haydn Fleury.
Aho has done it again.
Peters likes to tell the story of a game last year against Pittsburgh when Crosby took a peek at the back of Sebastian Aho’s jersey to check out the name. The rookie had made an impression.
After scoring the winner last week against the Pens, he put on a show Thursday with his speed and skill.
Aho’s ultra-quick move around defenseman Justin Schultz to beat Murray midway through the third period had Canes’ TV announcer John Forslund using his “Hey, hey, whaddya say!” line a little earlier than usual, and Aho scored again later off a deflection.
“He’s probably a little underrated around the league, but to our guys and us as a staff, we know how good he is,” Peters sad.
Penalty-killing is improving
The Canes’ penalty-killing, through much of the first half of the season, has not been as rock-solid as it has been in recent years. That’s changing.
The Canes were 24th in penalty-killing and the Pens first in the NHL on the power play going into Thursday’s game. The Pens had two power plays and did not get a shot as the Canes extended their run of successful penalty kills to 16 over the past seven games.
The Pens thrive on their power play. They’ve now been outscored 96-56 in 5-on-5 play, a startling statistic for the defending champs.
The return of Cam Ward
There’s not much more that can be said about Cam Ward. The veteran goalie has proven to be the ultimate team guy, saying all the right things in preseason as everyone talked about Scott Darling and remaining patient and supportive as Darling struggled.
“I’m realistic,” Ward said in September. “I understand the situation. I know (Darling) was brought in here to sign a four-year deal for pretty good money not to be a backup. I know where I am in my career.
“Certainly I’m a competitive guy and I still want to be able to play and I’ll do whatever I can to earn that ice time.”
Ward has earned the ice time and now has won six straight games. As Peters put it, “He’s dialed in.”