This is the way the Carolina Hurricanes envisioned it working between the pipes:
Goalie Cam Ward playing well one night, Scott Darling the next.
General manager Ron Francis brought in Darling to be the Canes’ No. 1 goalie this season and Ward, in preseason, said he could accept a lesser role after being Carolina’s franchise goalie since the Stanley Cup run in 2006. Such was the plan.
But 32 games into the season, the scales aren’t tipped as heavily to Darling, and the Canes perhaps moving closer to having no clear-cut No. 1.
Ward, given consecutive starts against the Vegas Golden Knights and Buffalo Sabres, won both. Darling, in turn, backed up Ward’s overtime win Friday over the Sabres with a strong 35-save effort in the Canes’ 2-1 victory Saturday over the Columbus Blue Jackets at PNC Arena.
For the first time this season, the Hurricanes (14-11-7) have won three straight games. And it has started in net, where Ward has given his team calm, steady play in his last two games and Darling then responded with a clean, tidy performance.
“It’s been great, and it’s huge for us,” said defenseman Noah Hanifin, whose second-period goal Saturday was the winner. “When you’ve got guys like Cam and the way Scotty played for us, it’s huge.
“It gives us motivation. We know what we’ve got in net there. We’re a lot more confident, especially in the D-zone.”
Ward’s 3-2 win over the Golden Knights – in a shootout, no less – was his 300th career victory, and the veteran was given a rousing ovation Saturday by the home fans at PNC Arena. That win earned him the start Friday against Buffalo, in the last game of a six-game road trip, and the Canes won 5-4 after Ward made a nifty pad save against the Sabres’ Evander Kane in overtime and defenseman Jaccob Slavin then scored.
Darling was watching. A night later, it was his turn and his third start against the Blue Jackets (20-12-1), who came into the game one of three Metropolitan Division leaders with 41 points.
Darling faced 16 shots in the first period and gave up a goal on Alexander Wennberg’s tip from the slot. But he was aggressive in net, using his stick well, and allowed fewer rebounds than he has in other games.
“He bailed us out there early,” center Jordan Staal said.
Darling, obtained in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, has had two embarrassing gaffes this season, both in games against the New York Rangers. He fumbled and dropped a high, lofted puck by Mika Zibanejad into the net, and in a later game whiffed trying to play the puck in front of the net, allowing an easy goal.
Darling was winless in five straight games before Saturday, but said he managed tp keep his confidence from ebbing.
“I’m learning every day, and I’ve been learning from Cam,” Darling said. “He’s been showing me the ropes.
“He talks to me and keeps my confidence up. He’s been through it all in his career, and he’s seen the highs and the lows. If he sees me down he’s quick to give me a pat on the back and be like ‘It’s all going to balance out in the wash.’ He’s been great to me.”
A few hours before Saturday’s game, Canes coach Bill Peters was asked if he might go with Ward again, even in a back-to-back set. But he stuck with the plan to start Darling against the Blue Jackets’ Sergei Bobrovsky.
“He gave us a chance to build a game,” Peters said.
With 50 games remaining, it’s hard to say how the the games will be split between Darling and Ward the rest of the way. Goaltending coach Mike Bales will weigh in, and Peters will make the decision.
“They’re going to push (each other) and we’re going to play people who are playing well,” Peters said.
If both play well, the Hurricanes might just build a very good season.