RALEIGH, N.C.—The Carolina Hurricanes concluded the home portion of their 2011-12 schedule in poetic fashion on Thursday night, defeating the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in front of 17,836 at PNC Arena. Eric Staal beat Peter Budaj in the third round of the shootout to give the Canes their first win in the skills competition this season.
Carolina (33-32-16) had struggled all year in games that extended beyond the guaranteed 60 minutes of play, losing 10 overtime contests and all six prior shootout decisions.
“It was only fitting,” Kirk Muller said on nature of Thursday’s victory. “The way (Staal) played in the second half, it was fitting to see him score the final goal.”
Chad LaRose potted the Canes’ lone regulation goal, lighting the lamp 10:02 into the second period on the power-play. LaRose—who has only played in 66 games thus far—now has 32 points on the year, a new career high for the Michigan native.
Blake Geoffrion—grandson of Canadiens legend Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion—opened up the scoring for Montreal, sneaking the puck behind Cam Ward 4:32 into the second period on a wrap-around attempt. Geoffrion’s tally ended up being the only goal Cam Ward would surrender all night, as the veteran netminder stopped 30 shots en route to his 30th victory of the season.
“I felt like I was moving really well; I felt really comfortable,” he said. “My game has been pretty solid.”
Ward made one of the best saves of the season late in the second period, sprawling across the crease to stymie a point-blank shot from David Desharnais, preventing the Canadiens from taking a two-goal lead that would have likely proved fatal.
After succumbing to defeat in every other shootout this season, Ward was relieved to finally end Carolina’s painful streak.
“I felt like I was more patient than in previous shootouts, and it pays off,” he said. “It’s almost like the less you try the better result you get. … It was only fitting for us to get to that point and finally win one. Our fans have been so great all season long and so loyal, and we wanted to make sure we had a strong effort tonight.”
Former Hurricane Erik Cole, who defected from Carolina by signing a 4-year, $18 million contract with Montreal this summer, went third for the Habs in the shootout. He had a chance to put the Canadiens on top 1-0 over his former team, but rang his shot off the right post.
“I figured that (Cole) was going to be one of the guys in there,” Ward said with a laugh. “He had the better of me in Montreal, and tonight I like to think I got the better of him. We definitely didn’t want it to end with Erik Cole winning in the shootout.”
The Canes were able to extend the game beyond 60 minutes with top-notch penalty killing to compensate for their overall lack of discipline. Led by Brandon Sutter and his 7:47 shorthanded TOI, Carolina killed all seven of Montreal’s power-plays, including an abbreviated 5-on-3 advantage late in regulation and more than a minute of 4-on-3 in overtime.
“The guys are taking pride in (killing penalties),” Muller said. “They got the job done tonight. Killing off 4-on-3′s, 5-on-3′s—it’s a step ahead. I can’t emphasize enough how big special teams are.”
By earning two points against the Habs, the Canes have put themselves in a tie with the Lightning for fourth place in the Southeast Division. With the Jets a single point ahead of Carolina and Tampa Bay, the Canes could finish as high as third in the Southeast if they can win their season finale on Saturday against the Florida Panthers.
Andrew Hirsh is a credentialed NHL writer based in North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh