RALEIGH, N.C. – So much for these Carolina Hurricanes crumbling under the pressure of nearly being eliminated. The mood in their dressing room had never been lighter – and that was before they blew out the New Jersey Devils.
“I guess when you have nothing really to lose, other than being gone, you can play a little bit more relaxed,” forward Ray Whitney said. It showed, and now the NHL’s closest first-round series is headed to – what else? – a Game 7.
Eric Staal scored two goals less than three minutes apart, Cam Ward made 28 saves in his third career playoff shutout and the Hurricanes avoided elimination by routing the Devils 4-0 on Sunday night.
Whitney had a goal and three assists, Jussi Jokinen scored Carolina’s first power-play goal since Game 2, Chad LaRose had two assists and Staal added an assist for the Hurricanes.
They outshot New Jersey 37-28 while their reconfigured top line produced the first three goals, and that helped lead to the most lopsided final score of the best-of-seven series. It’s even at three games apiece, with the winner-take-all Game 7 set for Tuesday night in New Jersey.
“The difference in tonight was, a team that played like there was no tomorrow and the other team played like there was,” Devils coach Brent Sutter said. “When that happens, usually the team that plays like there is another tomorrow will end up on the wrong side.”
Ward finished with his first shutout in the post-season since beating Edmonton 5-0 in Game 2 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals. He went on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as a rookie that year, and has been the Hurricanes’ most consistent performer during these playoffs.
But through most of this series, the sport’s winningest goaltender – Martin Brodeur – has been his equal. Not this time.
“(Ward) did sit for a long time” without facing many shots, Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. “But it doesn’t mean the next shot down, even if it’s not a great shot, it could change the course of the game, with the pressure and the ramification of every shot in an elimination game. Very difficult for a goaltender, but you’re seeing the reason why both of those guys are that good. … He has really been the backbone of our team.”
This one probably would have been even more lopsided had the Devils not had Brodeur. Coming off his record-tying 23rd career playoff shutout, a 1-0 victory three nights earlier in Newark, he was under siege all night and finished with 33 saves.
“The way we played, we didn’t give ourselves a good chance to win this hockey game,” Brodeur said.
Not even the return of captain Jamie Langenbrunner, who missed three games with a lower body injury, could save New Jersey from its worst performance of an otherwise evenly matched series. The previous four games were decided by one goal, with two going to overtime and another 0.2 of a second shy from making it three straight before Jokinen’s buzzer-beating deflection ended Game 4.
“This has been a good series, and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Langenbrunner said.
This one certainly was – for the Hurricanes, anyway – although it did resemble Game 4 for a while.
Just as then, Carolina led 3-0 midway through the second period. The difference: the Devils, who rallied to tie that one in the third, didn’t have another comeback in them.
“We beared down,” Staal said. “Obviously, we didn’t want to let (a comeback) happen again. … We finished the job, and that’s what we came out to do.”
Indeed, the Hurricanes never seemed to let up in peppering Brodeur, much as they did when they put 44 shots on him in Game 5.
This time, a few got past him, perhaps because of the recent tweaks coach Paul Maurice made to his depth chart. He shuffled LaRose and Whitney to join Staal on the No. 1 line.
Whitney made it 1-0 midway through the first when he swatted Staal’s wraparound pass past Brodeur for his second goal of the series. Staal then gave the Hurricanes plenty of breathing room in the second, beating Brodeur with a wrist shot with 15:16 left and converting a 2-on-1 feed from Whitney with 12 1/2 minutes remaining. By that point, the Hurricanes were up 23-5 on the shot counter.
Notes: Jokinen’s goal, which came during a 5-on-3 advantage midway through the third, snapped a 1-for-22 drought on the power play for Carolina. … The Hurricanes scored first for only the second time in the series. … The Devils were denied their first back-to-back playoff wins since 2007. … Celebrity watch: Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith sounded the siren that preceded the Hurricanes’ entrance to the ice. North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough also was in the crowd, and when he was shown on the video scoreboard, he was both cheered and booed.