FSN South (TV)—Cam Ward didn't deserve to lose this game.
Eric Staal netted his team-leading 19th marker to pull the Canes even in the third period and salvage a point in the league standings. Carolina moved to within three points of idle Montreal for the eighth and final playoff position in the conference, with a game in hand. The Rangers padded their seventh position by a point, now seven points up on the Canes.
This talk of playoff positioning may seem premature, as the season is just on the verge of its midpoint. However, this game had a distinct playoff feel. Checks were briskly finished, crisp passes found their marks, and both goalies calmly made save after save, several of the spectacular variety.
As the second period dwindled, Ward made a signature save, gloving a Marc Staal drive with a motion that would make a rotator cuff surgeon do a double take. Early in the third he fended off Ranger pressure by flashing his right and left legs in quick succession, bouncing upright to be ready for the next shot each time.
Matt Gilroy finally broke through after 48 minutes of scoreless play. Joe Corvo lost his stick after a puck battle with Brandon Dubinsky in the corner, as Dubinsky wrenched it free with his legs as he fell down. In another game, Dubinsky might have been whistled for holding the stick. Instead of following play to the net, Corvo drooped his shoulders to shoot the official an exasperated glare. New York worked the puck out front and Gilroy had enough time and space—afforded by Corvo's tardiness—to wrist it past Ward.
It was a small mistake, but when the two goalies play this well, small mistakes make a big difference.
Carolina's Staal evened matters five minutes later on the kind of play he's proving to have in reserve when the Canes really need it. After winning an offensive-zone faceoff back to Corvo at the point, Staal put his head down and skated straight at Lundqvist even before Corvo shot the puck. Staal chopped the rebound by the goalie as he dove headfirst for leverage, skidding bodily into the goal a beat after the puck.
Another borderline penalty was part of the circumstance of the winning goal. Brandon Dubinsky barreled down the wing and got the puck to Zuccarello behind the net. Dubinsky's momentum carried him into Tim Gleason in the crease, and he shoved Gleason into Ward, who staggered briefly. Ward recovered in time to position himself at the post as Zuccarello walked the puck out toward the circle and flicked a shot into the far corner to close out the game. Dubinsky fetched the puck before hugging his teammate.
In overtime, only an obvious goalie interference will be called. This contact was incidental enough to be let go. Ward, after all, was able to get set to play the puck. And Zuccarello uncorked a perfect shot. Every player remembers his first goal, and this one was worth remembering.