Cam Ward has always insisted he likes a heavy workload -- the more starts, the better.
Sixteen straight starts certainly qualifies, and the Carolina Hurricanes goaltender will make it 17 in a row tonight in the road game against the Vancouver Canucks.
Ward should start Thursday against the San Jose Sharks, and again be in net Saturday to face the Phoenix Coyotes in Glendale, Ariz. By the end of the three-game trip, he should be one away from tying his personal best of 20 straight starts set at the end of last season.
Is it too much?
"If you're asking me if I feel tired, no, not at all," Ward said. "I feel fresh as can be, and I'm just trying to get ready for each and every game and never take a night off."
When asked if it was conceivable Ward could start every game the rest of the season -- leaving backup Michael Leighton seated on the bench, cap on head -- coach Paul Maurice had a quick reply.
"No," he said with emphasis. "No, he's not going to. We're going to get into a stretch of hockey come mid-February that's just not going to allow us to do that. Probably there will be a back-to-back date coming up here we'll have to take a look at."
The first back-to-back is a home game Feb. 14 against the Columbus Blue Jackets followed by a road game the next night against the Buffalo Sabres. Later that week will be another two-game set against the New York Islanders on Feb. 19 and Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 20.
Not that Ward is asking for a break, for a night off.
"To be honest, it didn't even cross my mind it has been 16 in a row," he said. "I'm very fortunate to be getting the ice time I'm getting."
Of Ward's three shutouts this season, two have come in the past five games. He stopped 35 shots in a 2-0 road win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 19, and he had 19 saves Saturday as the Canes topped the Atlanta Thrashers 2-0 at the RBC Center.
The Canes kept the puck in the Atlanta zone nearly the entire first period, outshooting Atlanta 21-4 in taking a 2-0 lead. The Thrashers recovered and played better as the game wore on but couldn't break through Carolina's tight, active defense or beat Ward and make it a closer game.
"The guys in front of me are playing great, making my job easier," he said. "And I think I've done a better job of being mentally prepared."
A year ago, Ward set personal bests in games played (69) and wins (37). While his 2.75 goals-against average and .904 save percentage also were career bests, he went into this season determined to improve on both.
Ward has a 2.50 GAA, which ranked 14th in the NHL before Monday's games, and his .913 save percentage was tied for 17th. He was ninth in wins with 20.
"Learning to be the No. 1 guy is a growth process," Maurice said. "We're very pleased with how he's handled it."
Meanwhile, Leighton sits. Since Dec. 11, he has made one start, in the Canes' 3-2 road loss to the Minnesota Wild on Dec. 23. His only other action was Jan. 10 against the Bruins at Boston, when he relieved Ward and was in the last 37 minutes of a 5-1 loss.
Leighton is 5-6-2 with a 3.05 GAA and .897 save percentage, but he was the winner in one of the Canes' biggest victories of the season. He had 38 saves, stopping Alex Ovechkin on a penalty shot, in a 3-1 win over the Washington Capitals. The Dec. 7 game at the RBC Center was the last time the Southeast Division rivals faced off.
"Obviously, I want to play," Leighton said. "I know the situation here, but I want to play."
For Leighton, that has meant extra practice time with goaltending coach Tom Barrasso. It has meant doing all he can to catch the eye of Maurice.
"He's really pushing himself and ... doing everything he can to stay in the [right] frame of mind," Maurice said. "He's a smart guy. He knows what our schedule is, so he's pushing himself to be ready."
But so is Ward, who also gets one-on-one work with Barrasso.
"This is crunch time," he said.
And if that means playing every game, Ward is ready for it.
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