Here we are in the dogs days of the NHL season, deep into the grind, and Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward is feeling … fresh?
“I am a lot fresher this time of year,” Ward said Saturday after the Canes’ 3-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche. “I’m having fun playing. I think as you get later on in your career you appreciate it a little bit more.”
A few weeks shy of his 34th birthday, Ward is “later on” in his career. But there has been an interesting dynamic at work this season, his 13th in the NHL, and the Canes’ playoff hopes could ride on it.
After the Canes’ first 56 games a year ago, Ward had appeared in 48.
This season through 56 games: 28.
With goalie Eddie Lack missing a lot of games last season with two concussions — the second after being hit in the head with a soccer ball in a pregame hallway warmup — Ward appeared in 21 straight games from Dec. 4 to Jan. 20. That’s a lot of hockey, even for someone who always liked a heavy workload.
Lack finally played in 15 games late in the season, giving the Canes a semblance of a goalie rotation, but his long absence put a lot of strain on Ward.
“For a goaltender there’s so much emphasis on focus and the mental aspect of our position,” Ward said.
Canes general manager Ron Francis traded for goalie Scott Darling after last season, bringing in the former Chicago Blackhawks backup with the intent of installing him as the Canes’ new No. 1 guy in net. Darling’s four-year contract, worth $16.6 million, seemed to signal that Ward’s days as the franchise goalie had ended, and Ward talked in preseason of being accepting a lesser role if need be.
Darling started the first three games and seven of the first eight. By Dec. 2, he had been in net 19 of the Canes’ 24 games, his goals-against average ballooning as his save percentage dipped.
After a 5-1 loss in New York to the Rangers on Dec. 1, the Canes were 10-9-5. Darling added to his own misery in that game at Madison Square Garden, fanning on a bouncing puck near the crease to allow an easy Rangers goal — a glaring gaffe.
Again, the Canes had to turn to Ward.
Ward won five straight games in December, including his 300th career victory Dec. 12 against the Vegas Golden Knights in Las Vegas. As Darling continued to struggle, Ward was steady.
“He’s been good all year,” forward Jeff Skinner said. “He gives the team a lift, makes big saves at big moments.”
In his past six starts, Ward has a 4-1-1 record with a 1.39 goals-against average and .961 save percentage. His seven goals allowed in the six games is the fewest in the NHL and he now has a 16-7-2 record , Perhaps more importantly, his energy level is high heading into the season’s stretch run.
Ward showed Saturday he’s still pretty nimble in net. After denying the Avs’ Gabriel Bourque a goal with a quick glove save, a prone Ward then had to squeeze his legs together to smother the loose puck as the Avs’ Matt Nieto took a whack at it.
“I feel if you can make a save like that it can get the guys regrouped and even fired up,” Ward said.
Ward smiled, adding, “I didn’t know if I could stretch like that anymore at my age.”
The win over the Avs moved the Canes (25-21-8) above the playoff line in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders. The digital board in the Canes’ locker room at PNC Arena, displaying the standings, is a constant reminder of where things stand.
Darling won his last start, beating the Vancouver Canucks 4-1 on Friday for his first victory in almost a month. That was reassuring for Canes coach Bill Peters.
“He was very solid,” Peters said. “Big, square, not a lot of rebounds and handled the puck well. So really good effort by him.”
But Peters may continue to ride Ward and will if Ward’s numbers continue to be this good.
“I think this team has confidence with whoever he calls,” Ward said. “You want to play and I’m rooting for Scott, too. We’re in this together and hopefully we can get this done.”
Meaning making the playoffs.
Ward signed a two-year contract extension with the Canes in June 2016, taking a significant salary cut, and is due to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. But he said getting the Canes back into playoffs for the first time since 2009 is his focus for now.
As he put it, “We need to break that bad streak.”
Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip