Both got what they were looking for Tuesday night in a 3-1 victory against the New York Rangers at PNC Arena.
The Hurricanes (28-28-9) had lost seven of eight coming into the game. With the win, they are seventh in the Metropolitan Division and trail the Philadelphia Flyers by eight points in the race for the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference. New York (35-27-4) remains second in the Metropolitan Division, one point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, despite losing to Carolina for the first time in 11 games.
In addition the team's tailspin, Ward has carried the additional burden of playing a sub-par season and battling a lower-body injury that has caused him to miss two long stretches. The win against New York was his first since defeating the Montreal Canadiens 5-4 in overtime on Dec. 31. Anton Khudobin won the starting job immediately after that, leaving Ward little chance to find his form.
"I can admit that it has been a mental struggle for myself," Ward said. "I haven't had that much of an opportunity to get back in there. I compliment Khudobin for the way he's played and I'm happy for him. He's made it difficult for me to get back in the net."
This time, Ward's teammates put in the kind of effort that takes the heat off of a goaltender. Jiri Tlusty and Jordan Staal took turns setting up pretty goals for each other, and the Hurricanes pursued the puck all over the ice, limiting the Rangers to 25 shots.
"I thought we played a really strong 60 minutes," coach Kirk Muller said. "There's still a lot of fight in these guys. Somewhere it's got to break and we can get on a roll, but we need a win to build on. Hopefully, tonight's that night."
After a scoreless first period, the Hurricanes opened the scoring 33 seconds into the second. Alexander Semin sent a backhand shot wide, but Carolina controlled the puck in the offensive zone until Staal slipped a pass to Tlusty in front, where he beat Henrik Lundqvist for his 11th goal of the season.
The Rangers answered at 4:22 with defenseman Kevin Klein's second goal of the season. Mats Zuccarello skated the puck below the Carolina goal line before flicking a pass to Klein, whose shot from between the circles went over Ward's glove.
Staal put the Hurricanes ahead to stay, starting and finishing a 2-on-1 break. Staal wrapped a pass around defenseman Anton Stralman to Tlusty, who sent a return feed to Staal for an easy tap-in at the right side of the net. It was Staal's 13th goal of the season
Rookie Elias Lindholm scored his sixth goal of the season with 5:29 remaining in regulation.
The win comes four days after the Hurricanes squandered a 2-1 third-period lead at home against the Rangers, who went on to a 4-2 win.
"On Friday, we didn't stick with the plan," Tlusty said. "We had a little breakdown and it cost us the game. Today we wanted to pay them back. Everyone was focused."
Making matters more difficult for Carolina was their long stretch of futility against the Rangers, who had won the previous 10 games against the Hurricanes.
"If we were going to beat this team that's given us some tough times, we were going to have to play harder and win more 1-on-1 battles," Muller said. "We won a lot of the races and the battles. We played smart. We had a lot of guys show that they're not going to quit."
The Rangers, on the other hand, were sloppy in their own end and failed to generate many quality scoring chances.
"Not that I don't want to give credit to Carolina, because they played a good game. But we [gave] away two points because we didn't work," New York coach Alain Vigneault said. "I have not said that very often about the group this year, but right from the start our work ethic wasn't what it needs to be in this league to have any chance. We must have turned the puck over in our end 12 or 13 times in the first period alone."
The Hurricanes have a long road ahead if they are to get into position to earn a playoff spot. The win reminded them of the approach they need to take.
"It's a mental, day-to-day thing, just to be confident in our system," Staal said. "We have to keep moving forward and keep looking ahead. The last few games, it hasn't always been a great result, but our effort has always been there."
For Ward, the win provided a much-needed individual boost. He will try to build on it the next time he gets the call.
"When you don't play, you put so much emphasis on one game that it can get you thinking too much," he admitted. "Tonight, I was able to shut it off and have some fun."
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