TAMPA, Fla — . Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford doesn't hedge any in assessing the play of goaltender Cam Ward this season.
"He has singlehandedly won us games and singlehandedly kept us in many games," Rutherford said. "He's our MVP for the year."
That comes from a former NHL goalie, from a man who has an appreciation of the position and its demands. And the fact the Hurricanes (34-29-10) go into tonight's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning three points out of playoff position is a testament to Ward's savvy and effectiveness, Rutherford said.
"He's been playing really well for us, and thank goodness for that," Rutherford said. "The way we've played as a team at times here of late, he's given us the chance to stay in the race."
Ward, 27, is approaching milestone numbers. He's on track to easily top his personal high of 69 games played in the 2007-08 season. He's also 78 saves away from 2,000, a number just eight NHL goalies have achieved since the 1997-98 season.
Ward likely won't top the NHL record of 2,303 saves set by Roberto Luongo in 2003-04 with the Florida Panthers. But he already has smashed Sean Burke's franchise record of 1,844 saves in the 1995-96 season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and leads the NHL in shots faced and saves.
Basketball players are forever talking about being in the "zone," where all the jumpers fall and everything seemingly comes effortlessly. The same is true for goaltenders, Ward said Thursday, when they're moving well and seeing the shots well.
"I think I'm at my best when I'm not thinking about anything, just going out there and playing," he said. "I'm just trying to give my team a chance to be in every single game that we play.
"This is a fun time of the year. It's a stressful time, and some people might take it the other way. But I look at it as a great challenge, and I like to rise to the occasion with the pressure situations such as we're in right now."
The Canes have heightened the pressure on their goalie by scraping to score goals, especially with the power play in a continued funk. When Carolina scored four goals Tuesday against the Ottawa Senators, the output had the feel of an offensive explosion - it was the first time this month the Canes produced more than three in a game.
But in the 4-3 win over the Sens, the Canes were outshot 39-24 and Ward had 36 saves. On Friday, in a 3-2 overtime win over the New York Islanders, Ward stopped 35 shots.
With the Canes trailing the Isles 2-1 in the third period, Ward gloved a bullet of a power-play shot by Matt Moulson with 11 minutes to play. Erik Cole's goal tied the score for Carolina with 4:37 left, and Joni Pitkanen won it in overtime.
That's rising to the occasion.
"Cam's been great, stealing games for us of late," forward Cory Stillman said. "Now it's a matter of us going out and maybe take some of the onus off him, maybe score some more goals."
Coach Paul Maurice noted Ward seems to be better the more shots he sees -- the Canes are 8-1-1 this season when Ward stops 40 or more, including a critical 1-0 road win last week over the Buffalo Sabres.
"Based on his record, we may shoot the first 20 at him [tonight] just to get him on the clock," Maurice said, joking. "But he's efficient in the net. He has played well and seen a lot of rubber and kept his confidence up."
Ward likes to play both games of back-to-back sets and will do it against the Lightning, which faces the Canes on Saturday night at the RBC Center. He should be in net the final nine games of the regular season - unless the Canes are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention - which would give him starts in 40 of Carolina's final 41 games and 74 total games played.
No problem, he said.
"At this time of the year, you're running on adrenaline and want to be on the ice and do what you can," Ward said. "We just need to keep playing like we've got our backs against the wall and keep doing what we're doing."
In his case, stopping shots.
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