FSN SOUTH (TV)—They didn’t have to have this one, but they had to have this one.
Consequently, the Eastern Conference standings shifted, as all but one of the teams in seventh through twelfth were in action. Combined with a Rangers win over the Islanders and a Devils win over Atlanta, the Canes remained in ninth but closed the gap to now-eighth-place Buffalo to just two points. New Jersey now looms largest in Carolina’s rear-view mirror, continuing their miraculous 2011 run to sit just four points back of the Canes.
Ryan Miller saved 32 of 33 shots in a losing effort for the Sabres.
Hitting was the story of the first period as the Canes looked to stave off the sluggish starts that have plagued them in recent games. Tuomo Ruutu set a physical tone immediately, decking Paul Gaustad inside the Buffalo blueline on the first shift and then earning a matching unsportsmanlike conduct minor with Mark Mancari just 17 seconds in.
Buffalo nearly cashed in on the subsequent 4-on-4 play. Tim Connolly crashed the net on a 2-on-1 after Bryan Allen’s turnover, upending the goalie. But Ward’s sharp save kept the Sabres scoreless.
That sentence alone was the story of the game.
Each team registered only four shots in a tense first period, but Carolina missed the net at least as many times. Five minutes in, Jeff Skinner received a great Joe Corvo pass and lowered his shoulder to drive the net, but missed wide.
The Carolina power play continued to falter. They’ve scored three times on their last 65 man advantages, and were scoreless in five tonight. The Canes seemed clueless about how to enter the Buffalo zone. When they were able to set up the power play, their point men weren’t moving enough to find shooting lanes to get the puck to the net. Buffalo penalty killers would block the shots with their shin pads and create shorthanded rushes with the Canes forwards trapped down low in front of the net.
But the power play summoned occasional chances off the rush. Jussi Jokinen attempted to work a play several times by catching Erik Cole on the fly cutting to the middle as he crossed the Buffalo line. Andrej Sekera foiled an open chance for Cole early on by tying up his stick at the last second.
Carolina controlled play early but Buffalo came on in the latter half of the period. The Sabres worked their dump-and-chase game well as the Canes defenders repeatedly hesitated clearing their zone. But Buffalo’s forecheck couldn’t get the puck to the net. Both teams blocked shots in bunches.
Around the middle of the period, Ward did the splits to rob Cody McCormick’s tip chance after Steve Montador threw a pass across the crease.
With three minutes left, Tim Connolly made Eric Staal look bad, winning a faceoff forward in the Canes’ zone and walking in on Ward as Staal reeled. Ward, however, gave Connolly nothing to shoot at.
Even as they were looking like they just wanted to run the clock out on the first period, Carolina broke through for what proved to be the only score. With 42 seconds remaining, Sutter corralled a rebound of a Derek Joslin point shot, out-leaning Miller on the weak side of the play.
For much of the remainder of the contest, both teams appeared to settle into a businesslike management of the game. Shots opened up, but they were from long range, and the goalies detected them while their defenders kept the creases clear. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff tried to spark his team by juggling his lines, placing the burly Mancari with Thomas Vanek and Paul Gaustad, but there would be little traffic in front of the net on this night.
Buffalo’s best chance came in the closing seconds. Vanek caught a stretch pass, moved the puck through a retreating Joslin’s legs and danced around him to face Ward alone. But the puck rolled and Vanek could not lift it into the space that Ward left him.
Carolina took two consecutive penalties early in the third period but hung on to keep the Sabres at bay. Ward gloved a Tyler Ennis slapshot from close range off a nice feed from behind the net from Vanek. A moment later, most of the players on the ice piled in the crease but Ward put the paddle of his stick down and waited for the puck to come to him.
Erik Cole had another breakaway chance with eight minutes left as Cory Stillman flicked a rainbow pass into the vacant Buffalo zone. Almost stopping in the slot, Cole missed the space that a moving Miller left between his legs.
Stillman again created chance on a late power play after Montador boarded Skinner with under four to play. Working from the half-wall, Stillman seemed to have passing options at the point and as teammates broke across the high slot. But Miller yielded nothing.
The final minutes were not particularly frantic as the Canes built a wall along their blueline and kept the Sabres from entering cleanly. After the horn, they mobbed their goalie.
But that elation can’t last too long. Carolina returns home to host the more-desperate Toronto Maple Leafs Wednesday night.