RALEIGH — Cam Ward will be back in net a little sooner than expected for the Carolina Hurricanes.
While Manny Legace will be the starting goaltender today against the Atlanta Thrashers, Ward will make his first start since Feb. 3 when the Canes and Thrashers go at it again Monday in Atlanta.
Canes coach Paul Maurice had said that Ward, who has been sidelined with a back injury, might return during the team's two-game trip to Montreal and Ottawa later next week. But Maurice said Friday that rookie goaltender Justin Peters was being reassigned to Albany of the AHL and that Ward would be activated.
With just eight games left in the regular season and the Canes seven points behind the eighth-place Boston Bruins and out of playoff position in the East, having Ward back may not make a big difference this year - not in reaching the playoffs. But general manager Jim Rutherford said Friday it was imperative Ward get back on the ice and in games before season's end.
"We'll feel so much better when he goes back out on the battlefield," Rutherford said. "We need for him to play some games and see how his back responds.
"The worst thing would be to go into training camp next season, Cam hurts his back again and needs surgery, and for us to go through this again."
Rutherford said a decision had been made that either Legace or Peters would be Ward's backup next season. The Canes, he said, would not try to trade for a goaltender or look to sign a free agent.
Legace, who began the season with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, was signed to a one-year, $500,000 NHL contract in early November after Ward suffered a slashed left leg. Peters, 23, spent much of the season in Albany - and played in the AHL All-Star Classic - before being recalled in early February when Ward's back problems began.
Peters was 6-3-0 with the Canes, with a 2.83 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. Legace, 37 and a former NHL All-Star, is 10-6-4 with a 2.74 GAA and .913 save percentage.
"Those two have made very good cases for themselves," Rutherford said. "Both are at different points in their career. Either would be a good fit for us."
Legace will be an unrestricted free agent and Peters a restricted free agent after the season.
Legace had a season-high 41 saves Thursday as the Canes stopped the Washington Capitals 3-2 in a shootout at the RBC Center. The free-wheeling Caps attempted 104 shots, putting 43 on net, having 35 blocked by the Canes and missing another 26.
Three of the four goals scored in regulation were by rookie defensemen - Jamie McBain and Bryan Rodney of the Canes, and John Carlson of the Caps. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that last happened in the NHL in a March 8, 1947 game between Toronto and Chicago.
McBain, in his sixth NHL game, picked up his second goal and sixth point. He also had seven blocked shots.
"You don't want to get too excited too early, ever, about any player. You learn not to do that," Maurice said Friday. "But, boy, I haven't seen a defenseman get that puck off the blue line to the net as frequently and precisely as he has in a long time.
"He's still learning and still developing and for a defenseman it does take a little longer. But he's made an impact in all the games he's played."
The Thrashers (32-30-12) sit ninth in the East, two points behind the Bruins. But the Canes, despite trading away seven players in the last month, despite Ward's absence, are 12-4-2 since Ward went out. They're 3-1-1 in their last five games without injured defenseman Tim Gleason, with two wins over the NHL-leading Caps and another over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I think any other team would have folded their tents and said enough is enough," Legace said. "But not this team. We're still battling every night."
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