RALEIGH — Carolina Hurricanes winger Ray Whitney skated off the RecZone ice Saturday, plopped down in the locker room and soon found himself talking about the play of goaltender Cam Ward.
"He's there," Whitney said.
"He's reading the puck so well," Whitney said. "He seems to be moving pretty fluid. He's anticipating plays, looking very comfortable.
"And you can see it in games now. He's square, in the right spot, with no unnecessary movements. He just looks really relaxed."
Ward looked that way Friday against the Colorado Avalanche. He had 29 saves in the Hurricanes' 2-1 win at the RBC Center, denied a shutout in the final seconds but very sound throughout.
Yes, the Canes' penalty killers helped him, snuffing out five Colorado power plays in a wild first period and six in all. And, yes, the Avs' Paul Stastny hit the post in the third period, the puck skittering along the goal line.
But Ward, who has to feel he deserves a break or two, was making tough plays look easy. He was moving well, effortlessly working the crease, getting the job done and giving his team - even with a patchwork lineup - a chance to win.
"Having fun," Ward said.
To be sure, the Canes are losing forwards at an alarming rate, with Tuomo Ruutu the latest to be sidelined. Ruutu suffered an upper-body injury during a fight with the Avs' Darcy Tucker, and Canes coach Paul Maurice said Saturday he probably would be out a couple of weeks.
Given all the injuries, one has to wonder if the Hurricanes can produce the kind of hot streak general manager Jim Rutherford said still is possible. Some might call that unlikely, in that the Canes have yet to win more than two games in a row.
But there is one person who could get extremely hot and help do that: Ward.
"He is the one guy," Maurice said.
Ward will be starting his 11th consecutive game today as the Hurricanes face the Ottawa Senators at the RBC Center. And while Carolina's lineup is dotted with call-ups from the American Hockey League, the guy between the pipes, the one wearing No. 30, is always the most important player on the ice.
"Goaltenders can make or break you," Whitney. "If he gets hot, he can easily carry a team and could make it interesting.
"Is it a long shot? Yes, absolutely. But if there is a guy who can do it, he's one of those guys who can."
In the second half of last season, Ward did it. He arguably was the best goalie in the league and was named the player of the month in March after going 10-1-2.
"He put us in the playoffs, the way he played," Whitney said. "He won us more games than anybody."
The Hurricanes were expecting more of the same this season and awarded Ward a six-year, $37.8 million contract extension in late September. But Ward, like the Canes, got off a slow, stumbling, losing start.
Then came Columbus.
In the Nov. 7 game against the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena, Ward suffered a deep cut near his left knee when slashed by the skate of the Jackets' Rick Nash. He needed surgery and was out for more than a month, returning Dec. 9 against the New Jersey Devils.
But for Ward, it was more than getting well, practicing, then jumping back into the lineup. He also was fitted for pad extensions that offered more protection around the knees -- a new addition to his equipment that required an adjustment.
"Any time you've played your whole career without them, it's going to feel a little awkward at first," he said. "But they don't feel awkward anymore."
Ward said he first began to feel like the "old" Cam Ward in the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers on the day after Christmas. The Flyers won in a shootout at the RBC Center, but Ward had some spectacular stops, once gloving a sizzling shot by the Flyers' Mike Richards while sprawled on his side.
"When he puts it into your glove, you feel like things are starting to turn," Ward said, smiling. "There had been some stretches before that, but in that third period in that game I started making some big saves that I felt good about.
"I take pride in trying to make my job look a lot easier than it may seem. I know when I'm comfortable, I make the hard saves look routine. ... I feel I'm headed in the right direction and making strides."
Maurice said Ward was "fantastic" late in a 4-3 overtime road loss against the Washington Capitals on Dec. 11, in his second start after his return. Ward was lifted early in the Canes' miserable 5-1 loss to Montreal on Dec. 23 but has been rather sharp in the six games since, with a 2.29 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.
"In every game, there have been pieces of his game that have been really good, and then there have been a couple of goals we haven't liked and he hasn't liked," Maurice said. "But [against the Avalanche] he was pretty tight, pretty good."
Ward noted he's at his best when his mind is clear, when he's just "reading and reacting."
"That's what I'm doing," he said. "I'm not worrying about the outcome too much, just trying to take care of what I need to do."
As Whitney put it, Ward is "there" again.
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