RALEIGH — Thursday afternoon, a member of the Montreal media asked Hurricanes coach Bill Peters what he thought of rumors goaltender Cam Ward could be available at the trade deadline.
Peters laughed when asked if Ward “was still a key guy.”
“Yeah, he’s playing great,” Peters said while chortling.
Ward proved his coach right. The veteran out-dueled all-world goalie Carey Price for the second Thursday in a row, winning a tight 2-0 game in front of 11,953 at PNC Arena.
“Unbelievable. The best player on the ice by far,” Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce, who had the game-winning goal, said. “If it wasn’t for him, it could’ve been a different story.”
Ward, however, wasn’t alone in earning the Hurricanes their third straight win.
Carolina’s defense was stingy and more physical in front of Ward than perhaps any other game this season.
“Our coaches stress that now, especially coming down the stretch here where we need these points,” Pesce said. “So we take that to heart, and we know we need to be tougher for Cam and stick up for him because he is playing so great and guys are going to try to get in the crease and kind of rattle him. So we gotta be there to protect him a little bit.”
It was also a balanced effort, one that saw all three defensive pairings and all four lines get their chances while limiting the Canadiens’ attack, particularly once Pesce’s goal put Carolina in control.
“I think we’ve grown,” Peters said. “We’ve had some leads and we’ve had some scenarios that we’ve been in similar to this, and we were much more composed and mature in those situations. So that’s a very positive sign.”
The win moved the Hurricanes (24-19-8) into a tie with Philadelphia for the second wild card spot after Carolina leapfrogged the Rangers (4-0 losers to Toronto) and the idle Islanders in the standings.
After a first period that saw Carolina dominate the first 15 minutes and Montreal the final five, the Hurricanes came out strong in the second.
Carolina’s fourth line lined up for an offensive zone draw and Marcus Kruger — taking over on the faceoff after Elias Lindholm was tossed from the circle — won the puck to Lindholm, who worked it back to Pesce for a slapshot that found its way past Price for a 1-0 lead 2:43 into the middle frame.
It was Pesce’s first goal of the season and came after he and partner Jaccob Slavin — Carolina’s top defense pairing — played the fewest minutes of the Hurricanes’ six defensemen in team’s win over Ottawa on Tuesday. Peters called it “a byproduct of other players being better that night,” a subtle shot across the bow of a duo that has been the foundation of Peters’ system.
“Me and Jaccob knew what we had to do,” Pesce said.
The team knew it needed a better defensive effort this time around against Montreal, with Peters calling the six goals Carolina scored on Price last week in Montreal an “anomoly.”
“There’s been times where we’ve been a little loosey-goosey, but tonight wasn’t that case,” Ward said.
An insurance goal from Brock McGinn with 5:09 left gave Carolina a two-goal cushion, with Justin Williams winning a chip-in race to the corner and feeding McGinn in front for his eighth goal.
While the Hurricanes dented Price for just two, Ward (27 saves) earned his second shutout of the season and first of his career against Montreal. He improved to 15-6-2 on the year and earned his third win a row. He is now 20-12-4 all-time in the regular season against the Canadiens.
“It’s not like he forgot how to play goal,” Williams said of Ward’s recent play. “He’s an unbelievable goalie and a guy that we certainly have a lot of faith in.”
Notes: Carolina dominated at the faceoff dot, winning 38 of 48 draws. Victor Rask was 9-0. … Montreal was credited with a 54-21 edge in hits. … Haydn Fleury had four blocked shots, which Ward said “didn’t go unnoticed.” … With a game at PNC Arena against Detroit tomorrow, the Hurricanes had a balanced attack — the low man in ice time was Marcus Kruger (11:40), while Pesce had the most (21:04). Ten players had at least 17 minutes. … Noah Hanifin led the team in shots on goal (four) and tied for the most shot attempts (seven).