Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Cross Checks [Print without images]

Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Without ego, Cam Ward leads playoff push

By Scott Burnside

Ask hockey folks to list the top 10 goalies in the NHL this season and you'll hear lots of names, some familiar, some not: Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist, Jonas Hiller, Carey Price, Brian Boucher, Marc-Andre Fleury, Roberto Luongo, Semyon Varlamov.

Wonder how many people you'd have to ask or how far down the list you'd go before you'd hear the name Cam Ward?

Might be more than a few.

Not that that bothers Ward any. Indeed, one of the young netminder's most endearing qualities has been his lack of ego.

Cam Ward
Cam Ward's .925 save percentage is sixth in the NHL but third among netminders who have played in 30 or more games this season.

In spite of the fact that he won a Conn Smythe Trophy in his first NHL season as the Carolina Hurricanes won their first Stanley Cup, Ward has remained self-effacing, unflappable, darn near anonymous. In some ways, the netminder mirrors the personality of the Canes themselves: a little bit under the radar but not to be underestimated.

"I think he's always been under the radar because of where he started," Canes GM Jim Rutherford told ESPN.com this week.

With the All-Star Game scheduled to be played in Raleigh, N.C., at the end of the month, it was more than justified for Ward to be selected to play.

But, the new father -- son, Nolan, was born almost seven weeks ago -- was not losing any sleep over the selection process before the remaining All-Stars were announced Tuesday.

"It doesn't bother me," Ward said of his life in relative obscurity in the Raleigh area. "To be honest I don't really need somebody to tell me I'm an All-Star for me to believe I'm an All-Star."

It is that kind of attitude that has served both Ward and the Hurricanes well in the past and appears ready to serve them well in the future.

"I'm not a guy to really seek the spotlight anyways," he admitted.

If Ward keeps playing as he has through the first half of the season, the spotlight will inevitably seek him.

The Canes started the season with a trip to Russia, where the St. Petersburg squad tried to mug them. Then, after games in Finland against Minnesota to start the regular season, the Canes jetted to the West Coast. Historically not a particularly good team out of the blocks, the Canes struggled through their arduous travel docket and fell behind the rest of the Eastern Conference early in the season. A strong December, though, has Carolina back in the hunt in the Eastern Conference.

Where many thought this young team wasn't ready to compete for a playoff spot, it is three points behind eighth-place Montreal with a game in hand as of Tuesday morning. More interesting, perhaps, is that the Canes are five points back of Atlanta, whom they beat in overtime Sunday, with four games in hand.

Ward is one of two suns around whom the Canes and their playoff hopes revolve.

Captain Eric Staal has come on offensively while Ward has quietly turned in a stellar first half of this regular season and appears to have shaken off questions about his durability that may have arisen during the past couple of seasons.

After missing the past two games with a minor injury, Ward is expected to be back between the pipes Tuesday night to face the visiting Calgary Flames.

"I'm probably the healthiest I've been in a very, very long time," Ward said.

Among the workout regimens he found and liked during the offseason was Pilates. "Although I do get razzed about it sometimes by my teammates," Ward said.

In 10 December starts, Ward was 6-3-1 with a .943 save percentage.

At one point in games against Atlanta and Anaheim, he turned in back-to-back 40-plus save performances, both wins.

Ward's .925 save percentage is sixth in the NHL but third among netminders who have played in 30 or more games. Only Anaheim's Hiller has made more saves than Ward.

"He's had stretches of just incredible hockey," Canes coach Paul Maurice told ESPN.com.

How important is Ward's presence to the Canes? Until this past weekend, he had started every Carolina victory this season.

"He's always been a special goaltender in my opinion," Rutherford said.

Like most Rutherford-built teams, this Carolina team is less about flash and dash and more about balance and consistency. After shedding veteran players last season at the trade deadline and with the retirement of longtime captain Rod Brind'Amour, the Canes are counting on a lot of young players to do a lot of grown-up work.

"That's really what's happened to us now," Rutherford said. "We have a long way to go, but I do like where we're situated now."

"I think if you went through that locker room, everybody would feel an important part of what we do," Maurice said.

One of the reasons that those players are able to feel that sense of satisfaction is the leadership shown by guys like Staal and Ward.

"This year we've been able to rebound after a disappointing outing. It's a consistency factor," Ward said. "We believe in what we're doing."