RALEIGH — Cam Ward was back on the ice Wednesday for practice with the Carolina Hurricanes, moving well, taking shots, absorbing some good-natured woofing from his teammates.
The team's star goaltender, sidelined since Feb. 3 with a back injury, could start a game next week - an important step for Ward and for the organization in moving forward.
But although Ward will return, forward Tuomo Ruutu will be lost for the final nine games of the regular season. Coach Paul Maurice said Ruutu, perhaps the team's most bruising forward, would undergo shoulder surgery today and would require extensive rehabilitation.
Ruutu had played much of the season with an injured right shoulder that knocked him out of games and required constant treatment. He was able to compete for Finland's Olympic team at the Vancouver Games, winning a bronze medal.
"It's gotten to the point he just can't play his game anymore," Maurice said. "Give him all the credit because he has played in some pain. He was very, very physical as long as he could be, but he just can't do it anymore."
The Hurricanes, who face the Washington Capitals tonight at the RBC Center, recalled forward Drayson Bowman from the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League. Carolina will have eight players in the lineup who played for the Rats this season, including defensemen Jamie McBain, Brett Carson, Jay Harrison and Bryan Rodney.
The Canes edged the Caps 4-3 a week ago today at the RBC Center on Ray Whitney's overtime goal. Washington was without Alex Ovechkin, who was finishing a two-game NHL suspension.
This has been a star-crossed season for Ward. He missed 13 games in November and early December after being slashed on the left leg by the skate of Rich Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets -- nearly a career-ending injury. Returning Dec. 9, he started 26 games and was regaining his form when he first experienced the back pain during the Feb. 3 game against the Flames in Calgary.
Ward had been slowed by back spasms before, but he quickly realized this was more serious.
"I haven't had that much pain in my back in my whole life," he said Wednesday.
Ward, 26, consulted a back specialist in Charlotte who decided surgery would not be required. That was a big relief, said Ward, who rested the back for a few weeks, then began rehabilitation with the Hurricanes' trainers as Manny Legace and rookie Justin Peters handled the goaltending.
Ward has done some skating and individual work with assistant coach Tom Barrasso the past few weeks and traveled with the team to Tampa Bay for Tuesday's game. But he got his most extensive workout in Wednesday's practice.
"It's been a long time coming," Ward said. "It's been awfully difficult and tough for me to sit out these past six weeks and forced to watch from the sidelines. ... I feel like a little kid out there again."
Maurice said it was necessary the organization see Ward - signed to a six-year, $37.8 million contract extension in September - play again this season. With a decision to be made about a No. 2 goaltender for next season, there must be a comfort level with Ward, the No. 1 man.
"To leave the season with a real good idea of where his injury is at, that he can play with it as is, is very important so we're not having those questions in September," Maurice said.
But it's important to Ward, for his own peace of mind.
"This year I suffered a couple of significant injuries," he said. "With the first one, I was able to come back and in my eyes play pretty strong. ... My expectations are the same with this one. I want to come back and feel good about myself."
At the end of practice, Tom Kostopoulos and Rod Brind'Amour went one-on-one with Ward. Soon, Eric Staal, Chad LaRose and others wanted in on it.
"Obviously, he's a huge part of this franchise, and it's good to have him back out there," Staal said.
And the players didn't go easy on Ward, taking their best shots -- with their sticks and their jibes.
"Cam's got that competitive spirit, so everyone wants to shoot on him and try and score on him," Kostopoulos said, smiling. "He doesn't back down from any challenges.
"It's good to have him on the ice again and working hard. You can tell he's starting to feel comfortable in there. He's moving well."
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