RALEIGH — Tim Gleason of the Carolina Hurricanes has played in front of goaltender Cam Ward for five seasons, doing the dirty, gritty work of a defenseman.
A year ago, he played with Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller for Team USA - and was his roommate - during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Gleason calls both friends and says the two are much alike in their play and in their temperament.
"They're very competitive," Gleason said Wednesday. "And they're great in big games, both of them."
Tonight's game qualifies as a big one. The Hurricanes (30-25-9) are eighth in the NHL's Eastern Conference with 69 points. The Sabres (30-25-7) are ninth, two points behind, with two games in hand and victories in seven of their last eight road games.
Said Canes captain Eric Staal, "It's a huge game. Both sides know that."
The teams are pretty similar. Both have two productive offensive lines, a dependable checking line and a physical, grinding fourth line. Both are solid enough on defense. Both feel they helped themselves with recent trades.
Ward wears No. 30. So does Miller. Tonight, it's likely one will be the difference in what should be a tense, tight-checking game.
Ward, who turned 27 on Tuesday, leads NHL goalies in games played (57), saves (1,693) and shots against (1,841). He had 41 saves Tuesday in the Canes' 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers, making 18 stops in the third period.
Talk about seeing a lot of rubber. Ward has faced 40 or more shots 13 times this season - he did it only four times in 47 games last year.
"We're going to give up slightly above average on shots based on faceoff percentage and puck control," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "But the number of shots we give up is a big concern and has been all year."
Gleason leads the Canes with 109 blocked shots after stopping five against the Panthers, and he said some tougher work in the defensive zone to help Ward is a must down the stretch.
"As a defensive corps we need to decide to block more shots for him and clear more pucks out," Gleason said. "We're a young team, and we're learning things here and there in our zone. We just have to be a little more determined."
Ward wasn't in goal for the Canes early last March. After playing 24 consecutive games, he missed the next 18 with back problems.
Tonight will be Ward's 24th consecutive start. But he continues to say he feels fresh and strong, and the Canes are seeing that he gets more time off between starts. Ward did not practice Wednesday.
"It's something we have tried to alter a little bit," Maurice said. "Some of it is based on how he feels - kind of the green light when he feels he needs to be on the ice. And the other option is just going out with [goalie coach] Tom Barrasso for 15 or 20 minutes and work on one or two things."
Miller, 30, is 27-18-6 this season with a 2.65 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. He started 31 straight games at one point, beating the Canes 3-2 on Jan. 13 in Buffalo, but appeared to be showing the strain of the streak a month later.
After giving up seven goals Feb. 13 in a 7-6 home loss to the New York Islanders, Miller had some sharp words for Buffalo News reporters in the locker room. The next game, Miller was given the night off as Jhonas Enroth was in net.
Miller had a 2.78 GAA at the time. He has gone 3-3-1 in his past seven starts but has allowed just 13 goals.
"He's a lot like Cam in that he has that ability to look calm and make hard saves look easy," Staal said. "He plays his angles really well. He looks pretty big in the net. He's positionally sound, and that breeds confidence with guys in front of you, just like Cam."
Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2006. He has played in four Game 7s in the playoffs and has won them all. One of the victories: against the Sabres in the 2006 Eastern Conference finals.
Asked about having to make 41 saves and his workload against the Panthers, Ward had a quick reply.
"I'm just doing my job," he said. "I realize I have to step up my game, too, and help this team push toward the playoffs, and that's by going out and giving our team a chance to win."
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