After going winless in six tries this season, Carolina relied on Eric Staal to score the only goal of the shootout, lifting the Hurricanes to a 2-1 victory against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night at PNC Arena.
"The way he played the second half of the season, it was great to see him be the final shooter and score the final goal," said Carolina coach Kirk Muller.
Cam Ward stopped 28 shots through 65 minutes and denied Lars Eller, David Desharnais and Erik Cole in the extra session. Ward reached the 30-win plateau (30-23-13) for the fifth time in his career, and he took some pleasure solving the shootout.
"I felt like I was moving really well and I was comfortable," Ward said. "The thing about the shootout is you've got to be able to relax. I felt like I was more patient than in previous shootouts. It pays off. Sometimes the less you try, the better result you get."
Like most of his teammates, Ward was taking the long view after the game, rather than dwelling on the win. Although the Hurricanes never got back into the playoff chase after an 8-17-4 start, they did improve in the second half of the season.
"It doesn't make it any easier," Ward said. "I think everyone in here is still disappointed that we're not making the playoffs. It's important that you finish the season strong. We've done a lot of good things and made a lot of strides since Muller has taken over. You don't want to take your foot off the gas just because we're out of the playoffs."
Staal, the Hurricanes captain, was also looking ahead after the final home game of the season.
"I think we're going in the right direction as a group and an organization," he said. "If we can continue to grow as a group and add some pieces, we'll be excited about coming into training camp and doing what Kirk asks us to do."
The game had the feel of two teams who were eliminated from playoff contention. Each team took seven minor penalties but looked mostly sluggish with the man advantage. The Hurricanes did score on the power play when Chad LaRose put his own rebound past Peter Budaj in the second period, but the Hurricanes managed just seven shots in 11:02 of power-play time, while the Habs registered five in 11:45.
Montreal had to summon a little extra energy, playing on consecutive nights after a 5-2 home win over Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. The Canadiens' lone goal came early in the second period, as Blake Geoffrion opened the scoring with a wraparound.
"We are pleased with the fact that nobody quit and it was a great effort on many guys' parts," said Montreal coach Randy Cunneyworth. Overall, we did play a good game with solid effort."
Cunneyworth also saluted Carolina's penalty kill, which defended a 5-on- three late in the third period.
"You have to give credit where credit is due, and that penalty kill was excellent," he said. "Their goaltender was good as well."
Muller, who spent the past five seasons as a Montreal assistant, improved his head coaching record to 25-19-12. The Hurricanes have responded well to his methods, which has left a good feeling around the organization and the Carolina fan base. But the coach senses the same thing as Staal — that everybody is longing for more from the Hurricanes.
"It's an emotion change, of going so hard since the All-Star break," Muller said. "Our guys really played hard and I'm proud of them. The crowd is anxious to see playoff hockey. They supported the team right to the last game here tonight. Hopefully we're in a different situation this time next year."