RALEIGH, N.C. – Cam Ward didn’t have to work very hard for his latest shutout – and he still had a rather easy night.
Ward made 19 saves for his second shutout in two weeks, and Matt Cullen had a goal and an assist for the second straight game in the Hurricanes’ 2-0 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday night.
“Typically, for a goaltender, these can be tough games, when you’re only facing 19, 20 shots,” Ward said. “But I felt sharp all night despite not getting much work.”
Cullen and Ray Whitney scored during a dominating start before a juiced-up crowd that coach Paul Maurice called “our best period of the year” and teammate Chad LaRose described as “Game 7 of the playoffs without the pressure.”
The Hurricanes held on for their fourth win in five games while sending the Thrashers to their fourth straight loss. With a sweep of struggling Southeast Division rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta, Carolina moved back into second place – one point ahead of Florida – in the division and now heads to the West Coast to play Vancouver, San Jose and Phoenix.
Ward, making his 16th straight start, finished with his third shutout of the season and the ninth of his career. He blanked Toronto 2-0 on Jan. 19 and, in his last game, shut out the Lightning over the final two periods.
Atlanta’s Kari Lehtonen made 38 saves and kept his team in the game with several spectacular stops. But he was under siege all night for the Thrashers, who couldn’t get anything going offensively. They were held to four shots in both the first and third periods, and have scored a total seven goals during their four-game slide.
“It helps that we didn’t give up any grade-A scoring opportunities,” Ward said. “It looked like they were getting a little bit frustrated. We were taking away their time and space and all that, and didn’t let them get too creative.”
Atlanta has lost three straight to Carolina – all in the two months since Maurice was rehired by the Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes held a 40-19 shots advantage and were the aggressors all night long – even when the Thrashers were on the power play.
“It seemed pretty easy for them. They had all the energy,” Atlanta defenceman Ron Hainsey said. “We had a couple of shots, but they weren’t really dangerous. That’s pretty much the story.”
After not scoring a short-handed goal during their first 49 games, the Hurricanes have done it in each of their last two outings.
Cullen took his turn to score short-handed midway through the first – and midway through a tripping penalty to Eric Staal – when he put the Hurricanes up 1-0. He took a feed near centre ice from LaRose – who scored a short-handed goal two nights earlier – and skated in alone on Lehtonen, beating him with a high wrist shot for his 12th goal.
“We’re focusing on being a lot more aggressive, getting a lot more movement through the neutral zone and keeping our speed better, and I think that that’s given us opportunities to jump the other way,” Cullen said. “But, more importantly, it’s putting more pressure on them in keeping the puck out of our end.”
Later in the period, Whitney stretched the lead to two on a set play in which he took a pass from Cullen in open ice and deked Lehtonen before sliding the puck through his legs for his 16th goal.
Those scores came during an overwhelming opening 20 minutes in which the Hurricanes outshot the Thrashers 21-4.
I’m getting tired of talking about the starts we’ve been having,” Atlanta centre Bryan Little said. “Each game we say we have to have a good start and each game we don’t. … I don’t know what it’s going to take to get back to playing a full 60 minutes.”
Atlanta was fortunate that its deficit was only two goals – Tuomo Ruutu rang the left post, and Joni Pitkanen missed an open net, while the Thrashers couldn’t put a puck on net until about six minutes in.
“I don’t think we really gave them too many chances to score, and we had lots of chances,” Ruutu said. “We could have scored maybe another five, six goals.”
Notes: LaRose has points in three straight games, and Cullen has points in five of seven. … Maurice coached his 700th game with the Carolina franchise. He’s the 14th coach in NHL history to reach that milestone, and the third who is active. … Little, who shares the team lead with 21 goals, went scoreless for the fifth straight game. … The game marked the nightcap of a basketball-hockey doubleheader at the RBC Center. Roughly 2 1/2 hours before the opening faceoff, No. 5 North Carolina finished off a 93-76 rout of N.C. State.