BUFFALO, N.Y. – Embarrassment provided Eric Staal all the motivation he needed to reinvigorate the Carolina Hurricanes’ late-season playoff push.
With Carolina fighting to get back into position for an Eastern Conference playoff spot after two dreadful losses, Staal had a goal and two assists and Cam Ward stopped 36 shots in a 3-0 win over the flat-footed Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night.
“The bottom line is we had to respond,” said Staal, noting how Carolina had been outscored 10-1 in its past two games, including a 5-1 loss at home to Columbus on Saturday. “Any time you have embarrassing home losses, you remember that. And I thought everybody did tonight and responded well.”
Ward was equally impressed by how the Hurricanes thoroughly dominated the Sabres in a game that would’ve been more lopsided if not for the play of Buffalo’s two goalies.
“The guys were skating extremely hard and it seemed like we had the jump on them everywhere,” Ward said. “It was huge.”
Chad LaRose and Sergei Samsonov also scored for the Hurricanes, who outshot the Sabres 34-21 through two periods and 47-36 overall. Aside from winning a season-best third straight road game, the Hurricanes (28-24-5) gained ground in the Eastern Conference standings. With 61 points, the ninth-place Hurricanes moved within three points of Buffalo (29-22-6) and Florida, who hold down the final two playoff spots.
It was the Sabres’ turn to be embarrassed.
“I don’t even know what to say right now. It’s unacceptable,” Sabres captain Craig Rivet said. “They had more desperation. They worked harder. They beat us tonight in every aspect.”
What especially hurt more was how the Sabres let down their goalies. Ryan Miller was mercifully pulled after allowing two goals on 18 shots in the first period. Patrick Lalime then kept the game close, stopping the first 26 shots he faced before Sergei Samsonov converted his own rebound with 2:12 left.
The Sabres’ frustrations were exemplified by Lalime, who smashed his stick on the bench on his way to the locker room.
“It’s a tough situation on our goaltenders when we’re leaving them out to dry like that,” Rivet said. “It’s disrespectful to those guys behind us.”
The Hurricanes had the jump on the Sabres from the beginning, with Staal leading the way.
He opened the scoring with a power-play goal 9:20 in, when he gloved down Jochen Hecht’s weak clearing attempt and snapped a shot from the right circle that appeared to deflect in off someone in front.
Staal was unstoppable four minutes later in helping the Hurricanes go up 2-0 while a delayed penalty was called against Adam Mair. Skating through the middle, Staal avoided Ales Kotalik’s weak stick check, then deked around Teppo Numminen to get a shot off.
Miller made the initial stop, but couldn’t control the rebound, which LaRose stuffed into the open left side.
The Hurricanes’ aggressive forecheck and constant pressure demoralized the Sabres, who didn’t show any life until the start of the third period.
Trouble was, Ward wasn’t going to let Buffalo back into the game.
In the opening minute, he stopped Derek Roy’s shot from the right circle and then recovered in time to foil Drew Stafford’s attempt to convert the rebound from the slot. Ward’s best save came with 13 minutes left, when he got his glove up to snag Tim Connolly’s snapshot from the right circle.
“Our best players were our best players and that hadn’t happened the last game,” Hurricanes’ coach Paul Maurice said. “Eric Staal breaks the game open and his line was fantastic. Cam Ward slams the door at the back end, and that was the difference for us.”
Notes: Hurricanes RW Justin Williams did not return after being struck in the arm by teammate Anton Babchuk’s point shot late in the first period. The Hurricanes declined comment on the severity of the injury. … Hurricanes D Tim Gleason did not play after sustaining what the team described as an upper-body injury on Saturday. … Sabres C Paul Gaustad (shoulder) could be ready to return by Thursday, when Buffalo plays at Philadelphia, coach Lindy Ruff said. Gaustad missed his fifth game Sunday.