DeCock

Ward ready to carry load

Staff WriterOctober 2, 2009 

— There's nothing in Paul Maurice's coaching résumé to indicate he's ever hesitant to play his No. 1 goalie, which is good news for Cam Ward, who would just as soon play as not.

So as he prepared for the season that begins tonight against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Carolina Hurricanes' coach sat down with his calendar and looked for places in the schedule where he might give Ward a rest and find Michael Leighton some action.

It's the kind of plan that looks great on paper before the puck is dropped but often goes out the window as soon as circumstances intervene - and in Maurice's past, circumstances have intervened quite often.

"I will admit," Maurice said, "that I have a history of running goaltenders very hard. At the same time, usually, not always, under the circumstances they've played very, very well."

During Maurice's first stint with the Hurricanes, Arturs Irbe played 152 games over the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons. In Maurice's two seasons coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs, Andrew Raycroft played 72 games in one, Vesa Toskala 66 in the other.

Ward is coming off a 69-game season in 2007-08 and a 68-game season in 2008-09, including 28 straight and 40 of Carolina's final 43 games.

So, how many this year? Ward has no idea.

"You can't put a number on it," Ward said. "You just have to go from game to game."

With Maurice in charge for a full season and Ward continuing to develop into one of the NHL's top goalies, it's not a stretch of the imagination to see Ward playing in 70 games, maybe even approaching Irbe numbers.

Nothing against Leighton, whose spot start against the Sharks in San Jose in February was a critical moment, but when you have one of the best young goalies in the game, one who has shown he is capable of handling that workload, you give it to him.

"I find that I play my best when I'm playing a lot," Ward said. "I realize I can't play every game. Michael's more than capable of stepping in and helping us get a win. But for me, personally, I love to be in the net. It's easier to stay in that rhythm on a regular basis."

Really, the sky is the limit as Ward continues to develop. At 25, he should just be entering the prime of his career, and his reputation has grown to the point he should receive serious consideration for the Vezina Trophy if he plays to his potential.

His improvement under Tom Barrasso is significant, most notably in his increasingly smooth and sharp puck-handling, more subtly in his more sharply focused mental game. Even as a rookie, he was as calm and composed as the fifth-year veteran he is now. And there won't be any distractions hanging over him, not after he signed a six-year contract extension this week.

"He's one of those guys, you come to the rink every day and you never think about him - in a good way," forward Scott Walker said. "You never wonder if our goalie's going to be good tonight. You never wonder if he's going to be hot. You only worry about your own game. He's a given."

The only question is Ward's health, which wouldn't have been a question at all if he hadn't shown up at Canada's Olympic camp in August with the same sore back that slowed him during the conference finals.

By the time the Hurricanes started training camp this fall, his back issues during the Eastern Conference finals series against the Pittsburgh Penguins would have been gone and forgotten. Instead, it quickly resurfaced as an issue in Calgary, even though Ward said he thinks it was nothing more than "bad timing."

"Really, I do," Ward said. "It flared up on me and it affected me for a week both times, but once that week was over I felt fine."

If his back does become a recurring issue, learning to play through it will become another step in Ward's development, because he's going to have to carry this team on his back from start to finish -- this year, next year and beyond.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8947

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