Luke DeCock

Rejuvenated Ward off to good start for Canes

While Victor Rask may have scored the overtime game-winner Wednesday night, there’s no question Cam Ward won the game for the Carolina Hurricanes.

With a breathtaking diving stop with the blade of his outstretched stick late in regulation and a breakaway save on Jarome Iginla in overtime, Ward kept the Colorado Avalanche off the board long enough for Rask to claim the two points late in the 1-0 win, the Hurricanes’ second of the season.

Ward also had good stretches in Saturday’s 4-1 loss at the Washington Capitals, not one of the Hurricanes’ better efforts, but not one of Ward’s worst. In fact, while his goals-against average and save percentage so far are slightly worse than last season, it’s hard to single him out for any of the losses – and his numbers are inflated by the 5-3 home-opening loss to the Detroit Red Wings, when he was left helpless by several defensive implosions.

With apologies to Noah Hanifin, who has stepped right into the NHL as an 18-year-old, Ward’s return to form is perhaps the biggest development of the opening two weeks of the season for the Hurricanes, given the uncertainty that surrounded the goaltending position before it started.

Eddie Lack, brought in to compete with Ward for the starting role and signed to a two-year contract extension before the season, was considerably less than impressive in his Carolina debut, a 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers, and he’ll likely get a second chance to make a first impression this weekend in California, either Friday at the Los Angeles Kings or Saturday at the San Jose Sharks.

Already, he has some work to do to wrestle the job away from Ward.

Ward’s resurgence is less about technical tweaks – although as broadcaster Tripp Tracy has pointed out repeatedly, Ward’s eye discipline has been excellent – than his attitude, and not even in the manner one might suspect. While many players rediscover lost ambition during the final year of their contract, Ward appears to have rediscovered his sense of joy.

Over the past few years, whether because of the pressure of the position or the relentless string of injuries, Ward too often wasn’t playing like someone who writes “Have fun” on his goalie sticks. He came into the league that way but lost it somewhere along the line. At age 31, it’s back now. He seems more cheerful off the ice and certainly more precise on it.

The Hurricanes went into the season with both Ward and Eric Staal, the two holdovers from the 2006 Stanley Cup champions, entering the final seasons of their contracts. Given Lack’s arrival and new contract, it seemed as if Ward was the more likely of the two to depart.

Less than a month into the season, it’s fair to say their prognoses have flipped.

Staal, while tied for the team scoring lead with four points, could still end up signing at a price that makes sense for both him and the team, but it’s also hard to get around the fact the Hurricanes have $20 million tied up in Staal, his brother Jordan and Jeff Skinner without commensurate production or performance from that trio, although Eric Staal has so far been the best of those three by far.

It seems Ward has recaptured the form that made him the Hurricanes’ long-term option in goal in the first place – and made history in the process Wednesday. Not only did the Hurricanes win in Denver for the first time since 1996, when they were the Hartford Whalers, Ward’s shutout was his team’s first against that franchise since 1992, when the Hurricanes were the Whalers and the Avalanche was the Quebec Nordiques.

It took something special from Ward to break those streaks. Now the trick is to sustain it.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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