Less than three months into his Carolina Hurricanes career, Scott Darling has done the impossible. He has made Hurricanes fans excited to hear Cam Ward announced as the starting goalie.
That was the case before Saturday night's 4-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres, Ward making consecutive starts for only the second time this season – all in the past two weeks – and winning both after Darling was left in net for all eight goals in Tuesday's 8-1 loss in Toronto.
Ward was booed more than once in recent years, often bearing the brunt of fan frustration over the eight-year playoff drought. Ward wasn't good enough at times and the team wasn't good enough at others, but a steady succession of pretenders still couldn't oust him from the job. And the Hurricanes still couldn’t make the playoffs.
This year was supposed to be different. Everyone was ready for a change. The Hurricanes were keeping Ward around, but they were turning the page. Eddie Lack was sloughed off on Calgary and Ward was told to prepare for a reduced and more sporadic workload with Darling as the unquestioned No. 1.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Less than three months into the season, it's fair to ask whether the Hurricanes even have a No. 1. It's certainly isn't who they thought it would be.
“We're going to have a guy who starts tonight and then we're going to have Christmas,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said before Ward started Saturday.
If you don't know who your No. 1 goalie is, you don't have one. Kind of like how if you don't know who your captain is, don't appoint two of them instead.
Darling hasn't been seen since the Toronto debacle, which would have ranked as one of the worst goaltending performances in franchise history even if he had been pulled after the first period down 4-1 or after the fifth goal early in the third period. (The team wasn't any better.) So Ward started Saturday, just as he did in Thursday's win at Nashville.
The Hurricanes have won five of the past six and Ward has been in goal for four of them, with a 2.18 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. He has lost only one of his past nine starts, and Darling got stuck with that loss, officially, after relieving Ward at the second intermission.
“You have a newfound appreciation for the game when you see you're not playing as much and try to take advantage of the opportunities that you're given,” Ward said.
Darling's season has been a struggle, full of ups and downs and plagued by a rotating selection of technical flaws, his glove one night, his positioning or rebound control the next. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but his save percentage of .896 is 39th out of 44 qualifying goalies. (Ward, at .911, is 24th.)
Darling may yet get dialed in and turn out to be the upper-tier NHL starter the Hurricanes thought he would be when they traded for him and signed him to a four-year contract, but time is running out this season; when you're not in the playoff picture at the Christmas break – and the Hurricanes are still three points behind the Rangers and Islanders even after this little run – there isn't a whole lot of season left.
If the Toronto loss turns out to be the turning point of the Hurricanes' season – and that's a massive if – it may well be because it marked the end of the force-fed reliance on Darling. It's anyone's job now.
Inscrutable at the time, we now know what message Peters was sending when he cruelly left Darling in for all eight Maple Leafs goals. It was the same message he sent Lack last March when he told him to “make a (expletive) save,” except he didn't actually tell Lack, just said it to the media loud enough for Lack to hear. Leaving Darling in to get shelled by the Maple Leafs on an afternoon both Darling and the team were struggling had the same passive-aggressive feel.
Lack actually played reasonably well after Peters' public provocation, albeit long after the Hurricanes were effectively out of playoff contention and the franchise had decided to go in another direction in goal the next season anyway. Or at least they thought they were. This is Ron Francis' second hack at replacing Ward, having whiffed with Lack, but Ward is still the Hurricanes' best option, even if only by default.
Darling's numbers are worse than Ward's and worse than they were as a backup in Chicago, dramatically in some cases. Even beyond the stats, Ward's superior puckhandling ability makes a huge difference in the Hurricanes' defensive-zone play. While a goalie's record is largely dependent on how the team plays in front of him and the opposition – Buffalo is terrible, the worst team in the conference, and Ward has started two of the three wins over the Sabres – the difference between Darling's 8-10-6 and Ward's 8-2-1 is striking.
Darling could still end up being that guy, but he isn't the instant upgrade at the position the Hurricanes promised. For now, they appear to be right back where they have been every year since the fall of 2006: Hoping Ward can play well enough to get them into the playoffs.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock