DENVER — Eric Staal and Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes are accustomed to playing and performing before packed arenas and thousands of people.
But Staal and Ward also must be aware that there are a few more eyes watching their every move this season -- those on the selection committee that will choose Canada's Olympic team for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.
Despite the Canes' 4-3 shootout loss against the New York Islanders on Wednesday, Ward has been sharp in goal in nearly all of Carolina's first eight games. Staal has been bothered by a groin injury but is healthy and had a goal and assist -- his first multi-point game -- against the Isles.
"I don't really feel those eyes," Ward said Thursday. "Obviously, my focus is on the Hurricanes and trying to do what I can to contribute to the team.
"But there's no question in the back of my mind I have that goal in mind of making Team Canada for the Olympics. I realize a lot of decisions will be based on performance up until the end of the December, so not only is it important to bear down for the Hurricanes' sake, but it's important to bear down for the opportunity of hopefully representing your country."
Staal, who scored 40 goals last season, had just two before Wednesday's game and no assists.
"But I don't think there has been any added pressure," he said. "There's pressure every night to contribute and be a factor."
The big center was a factor against the Islanders. He was all over the ice, putting seven shots on goal and rifling the puck past Dwayne Roloson with 5:59 left in the third to trim the Isles' lead to 3-2.
"I feel back to 100 percent, which is nice, finally," Staal said. "It's been a little bit of a struggle."
Ward has started all eight games, and though his record is 2-4-2, he has a 2.47 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. With the Canes struggling mightily to score, Ward's strong play in net had kept Carolina in games.
Ward said the competition to make the Olympic team for the first time has helped sharpen his play.
"It only benefits me," he said. "There's a little bit of added pressure, but you also know that with what's at stake you go a little further in your preparation and doing whatever it takes to be ready."
Against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ward made a glove save on a point-blank shot by Bill Guerin that ranks with the best of his career. It enabled the Hurricanes to make it into overtime and then a shootout, where the Pens won.
Ah, the rub. Ward and the Canes are 1-2 in shootouts this season. All three of the Islanders' shooters scored, with Jeff Tambellini, Frans Nielsen and rookie John Tavares converting with relative ease.
In the Penguins game, Marc-Andre Fleury was in the opposite net and the shootout winner. Ward and Fleury are competing against the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur, the Vancouver Canucks' Roberto Luongo and the Columbus Blue Jackets' Steve Mason for the goalie spots on Team Canada.
Olympic games can be won -- or lost -- in shootouts. Does that add another level of pressure to perform?
"After last night's outcome, I hope it's not decision-making," Ward said, smiling. "But it's part of the game, and you've got to be able to come up with the key saves. Unfortunately, I fell short [against the Isles], but I thought in my first two shootouts of the season I handled it quite well."
Canes coach Paul Maurice said he didn't sense the desire to make Team Canada had negatively affected either player.
"Both of them, because of their stature in the league, have grown up with that kind of pressure," he said. "From the time they were 17 on, both of them had to be the best player on their team and then high draft picks and that pressure -- always feeling the pressure to be the guy to drive the team."
Staal and Ward attended Team Canada's orientation camp in late August. It will be a team, coached by Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings, that will be loaded at forward -- Sidney Crosby, Dany Heatley, Ryan Getzlaf, Rick Nash and others are available -- regardless of the players chosen in late December by Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman and his group.
"There's a ton of guys," said Staal, a reserve on the 2006 Olympic team. "We could probably go with two teams that could be competitive.
"It's definitely a challenge, but my name is in that mix with those guys, so that's a good thing. Now I've got to prove myself again and do the best I can to make sure that I earn a spot on that team."
Note: Defenseman Tim Gleason, who suffered an upper-body injury against the Islanders, is "day-to-day" and probably will not play in tonight's game against the Colorado Avalanche, Maurice said Thursday. Gleason would be replaced by Jay Harrison, Maurice said.
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