RALEIGH — In the first round, Cam Ward outdueled Martin Brodeur, arguably the best goalie of all time and at the least the winningest.
In the second round, Ward outlasted Tim Thomas, arguably the best goalie in the NHL this season and the probable Vezina Trophy winner.
What could the Carolina Hurricanes' goalie possibly do for an encore? How about this: To beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals, Ward may have to play even better than he has to this point.
As gritty as the New Jersey Devils were, as strong and skilled as the Boston Bruins were, the Penguins are the most offensively threatening team in the conference. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and four lines that all can score, they present Ward's toughest test yet.
"There are going to be a lot of drop passes, a lot of guys coming late," Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason said. "They have definitely two players that everybody's familiar with, and the rest of their lineup, they have a lot of guys who have been here before. They know what's going on. They contribute from the first line to the fourth line."
For Ward, this series should present a change of pace, just as the Bruins presented a different look than the Devils.
The Devils threw the puck at the net at any opportunity, looking to create havoc in Ward's lap. The Bruins would pick their chances, trying to find openings and waiting for clear looks at Ward.
"It was a completely different series from the first one," Ward said. "They're very selective with their shots. They won't just throw the puck at the net. As a goaltender, you're sitting there anticipating a shot and they dish it away. ... They were a tough team to play against, just because of the patience that they had."
And the Penguins?
"They'll do both," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said.
The Penguins have the skill to play like the Bruins and the muscle and hustle to play like the Devils. They play at a very high pace, always on the attack, moving from inside to outside, working the puck laterally as much as toward the net.
Against the Bruins, there were only a few times the Canes really leaned on Ward the way they did against the Devils -- the third period of his Game 2 shutout, when Boston poured on the offense, and in overtime of Game 7.
The rest of the time, the Canes were either shutting down the Bruins or giving them chances Ward couldn't be expected to stop. In this series, he's going to have to be at his best at all times, because the Penguins are going to get chances. They're too talented to shut down entirely.
So no matter how well the Hurricanes play defensively, they're still going to need Ward in this series. The Penguins are going to get their chances. Ward is going to have to stop them.
Those are difficult circumstances for a goaltender, but they are the kinds of circumstances in which Ward really thrives. He's a big-game goalie, and he showed that in the regular season when he denied Crosby on a breakaway and Malkin on a penalty shot in a 3-2 Carolina overtime win on April 4.
At 25, he has never lost a playoff series, and watching him shine in the playoffs after a two-year absence drives home what a missed opportunity those two seasons really were for the Hurricanes.
Because with Ward in net, there's always a chance. Had the Hurricanes made it in 2007 or 2008, they might have gone as far as this team has. But they didn't, and if anything, that has sharpened Ward's resolve.
Having won it all before, Ward knows how close the Hurricanes are to winning it again -- and, facing a team like Pittsburgh in the conference finals, how far.
"You just want to keep it going," Ward said. "You ask, 'What do you do?' You've got to keep it going. We've got two rounds left here, and we're starting to realize just how close we really are."
While Ward's game has been impeccable so far, it has been a team effort to this point. Now, the Canes are going to rely on Ward more than ever.