RALEIGH, N.C. – Cam Ward lived every goalie’s worst nightmare – twice: He had both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin charging hard at him on breakaways.
“You try to put yourself in the best position, and make yourself look big,” Ward said. “And, hopefully, he hits you.”
He stopped both Pittsburgh stars to help the Carolina Hurricanes advance to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Ward stopped 33 shots and matched a club record with his 38th victory of the season, and Carolina beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in overtime Saturday night to wrap up its first post-season trip since 2006.
Anton Babchuk won it at 1:11 of the extra session when the hard-shooting defenceman took a feed from Tim Gleason behind the right circle and unloaded a hard blast that beat Marc-Andre Fleury. His third winner in an eight-game span helped the Hurricanes extend their franchise-record home winning streak to 11.
“I just tried to shoot through the Pittsburgh (defenceman’s) stick … and through the guys in front of the net,” Babchuk said. “And it just went in.”
Their eight-game overall winning streak is their longest since they won nine in a row during 2005-06 – when they made their most recent playoff appearance and went on to win their first Stanley Cup.
Chad LaRose and Eric Staal both scored for the second straight game, and Ray Whitney added two assists for the Hurricanes, whose biggest concern now is keeping themselves in the mix for home-ice advantage in the first round. They have 95 points with three games remaining while Philadelphia, which lost in a shootout to Ottawa, also is at 95 points with four games to play.
“I’m excited to know that we’re going to have that chance” to return to the playoffs, Ward said. “This is where the work just begins. We’ve worked extremely hard to get ourselves in this position, and I’m excited for everybody, but we need to bear down in these last three games. I can’t express that enough.”
Tyler Kennedy had a goal and an assist for the Penguins, and Jordan Staal scored with 16 minutes left to make it 2-all. Fleury finished with 27 saves for the Penguins, who were denied a 12th come-from-behind victory.
The defending Eastern Conference champs picked up points for the 16th time in 17 games, but remained in sixth with 93 points and still have some work to do during their three-game road swing through the Southeast to clinch another playoff berth.
But after this intense meeting of two of the East’s hottest teams – Pittsburgh went 13-1-2 in its previous 16 games to vault from 10th place into the mix for home-ice advantage in the first round – it isn’t much of a stretch to think they could meet again at some point in the coming weeks.
“We’re playing well, and it’s not fun to lose, but I think if we realize we play that way every game, we’re going to see some more pucks go in,” Crosby said. “We’re going to be tough to beat.”
So is Ward. Making his career-best 26th start in goal for Hurricanes, he improved to 18-6-2 in that stretch by making all the big saves – most notably, stopping the Penguins’ two biggest stars on breakaways.
“The thought process is, not thinking at all,” Ward said. “I find that’s when I get in trouble – when I’m trying to guess where the guy’s going to shoot. You look at those two breakaways, it was just a read-and-react kind of situation.”
With Joe Corvo and Gleason shadowing him all night, Crosby’s 12-game points streak ended. He had a clear breakaway on Ward midway through the first before the Carolina goalie made a momentum-shifting save with his right shoulder, one of several opportunities missed by the Penguins.
“I had a lot of space, and I didn’t realize I had that much time,” Crosby said. “The puck settled down pretty late for me. He stood his ground. He didn’t make any moves. He was steady there. I just didn’t get the puck up. It happens.”
Malkin was awarded a penalty shot with 8:17 left in regulation after Gleason tripped him from behind on a breakaway. Ward stuffed him, too, turning aside a wrist shot with his pads to leave the NHL’s scoring leader scoreless in three career penalty shots.
Which one was tougher?
“I don’t really care … all of them are huge,” Ward said with a laugh.
And, a tying goal that appeared to click off Crosby and past Ward midway through the second was wiped out because it occurred an instant after Chris Kunitz was called for tripping Tuomo Ruutu.
“There are going to be calls that go against you,” Penguins interim coach Dan Bylsma said. “There are going to be goals that go against you. You’re going to get behind in games. But when you can stay in the game plan and play a certain way and stick to it, you give your team a chance to get back in games.”
The Penguins’ potent offence peppered Ward early and often during a fast-paced first, but got only one goal out of it – Kennedy’s 14th, which came about six minutes in. He put Pittsburgh up 1-0 by outworking the Hurricanes for a puck in the corner, skating along the goal line and lifting the puck past Ward.
“I think we would have liked to have buried some of our chances, but I think, pretty often, when you play like that, you’re going to see some good results,” Crosby said. “Unfortunately, we ran into a hot goalie tonight.”
Notes: Cole has 11 points in 14 games since rejoining the Hurricanes, and his assists on 35 of Staal’s career goals are the most by any player. … Penguins LW Ruslan Fedotenko (shoulder) was back on the ice after sitting out the third period of a win over New Jersey three nights earlier. … Hurricanes RW Patrick Eaves (upper-body injury) was scratched. … Carolina improved to 9-5 in its alternate black uniforms with one more appearance in them scheduled.