It remains possible, if not likely, that Cam Ward could play in all 48 of the Carolina Hurricanes’ remaining games, which would be a workload that is actually neither new to him nor historic for the franchise. He’s on pace to appear in 67 games but once played in 74, still three short of the franchise record.
“I think I could do it again,” Ward said Thursday. “I liked it.”
It may come to to that. As things stand, Ward is clearly the Hurricanes’ best option in net not only because of the way he has played since Nov. 1 – a 1.97 goals-against average and .927 save percentage – and his ability to handle the workload so far, but because the other options aren’t making the decision difficult.
Eddie Lack could return from the concussion that has knocked him out for six weeks at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, but it’s been so long since he has played that Hurricanes coach Bill Peters can’t even remember his last start. (A Nov. 6 home loss to the New Jersey Devils, currently in last place in the Eastern Conference.) And maybe Peters is just repressing memories of trauma; in his two seasons with the Hurricanes, Lack has an unforgivably mediocre 2.92 goals-against average, .896 save percentage and 13-16-7 record.
In his stead, Michael Leighton made one really magical surprise appearance to give Ward his first night off in 10 games – a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Nov. 27, Leighton’s first in the NHL since 2010 – but his other two were less inspiring, and he was dispatched back to Charlotte (AHL) last week after Lacko Taco was ready to go back on the menu.
Which leaves Ward, who is scheduled to make his 10th straight start Friday night at PNC Arena against the Chicago Blackhawks. Leave it up to him, and he would be happy to play all 48 left for a total of 76. That’s more than the 74 he played in 2010-11 under Paul Maurice, never one to let his No. 1 goalie get rusty, but less than Arturs Irbe’s franchise record 77, set in 2000-01.
“You won’t see that again,” said Hurricanes assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour, a teammate of Irbe’s that season.
While the idiosyncratic Irbe was very much a phenomenon unto himself, beyond comparison, both of those seasons had not only a coach in common but unreliable backups as well – Tyler Moss for Irbe, Justin Peters for Ward – and Lack’s Hurricanes career so far certainly puts him in that company.
In recent NHL history, goalie workloads have generally trended down. In the three seasons since the last lockout, only three goalies have played more than 70 games in a season, all in 2014-15, led by Braden Holtby’s 73. This season, five are on pace to break that mark, and that doesn’t include Ward, who may yet end up in the 70s – “60 to 70 is realistic,” Peters said.
Ward doesn’t rank in the top 10 in any NHL goaltending category at the moment, although if his numbers since Nov. 1 are taken in isolation he’d be top six in both goals-against average and save percentage. Still, the offseason conditioning changes that enabled him to enjoy this renaissance in net should theoretically enable him to absorb what figures to be the heaviest workload he’s seen since he played 68 games in 2011-12. He hasn’t played more than 52 since.
“You have to manage yourself differently – practices, optionals, morning skates,” Ward said. “The key is getting your body ready at game time.”
Thanks to the World Cup, the off weeks mandated by the labor agreement and the game against the Detroit Red Wings rescheduled from last week after the PNC icetastrophe, this year’s schedule is as crowded as any Olympic year, and for the Hurricanes in particular it’s backloaded.
Still, even when they play 17 games in 30 days in March, only three of those are back-to-back situations. If Ward were to sit out the second half of every remaining back-to-back, and play every other game, he’d end up playing 66 games. As long as he remains healthy, that feels low; while Ward sat out half of the Hurricanes’ first three back-to-backs, he has played all of the last three, and could again this weekend.
On Thursday, Peters entertained the idea of starting Lack on Saturday, but with the Hurricanes having no room for error, Ward continues to give them the best chance to win, night in, night out.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock
Blackhawks at Hurricanes
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh