Cam Ward didn’t even take a final lap around the ice. When the game ended – yet another home finale with no prospect of the playoffs – Ward went straight down the tunnel to the dressing room, having been pulled late for an extra attacker.
He resurfaced moments later to step on the ice as his teammates saluted the fans, but quickly turned and exited, perhaps for good. Perhaps knowing it was so.
“At the moment, I wasn’t even thinking about that,” Ward said. “I was more emotional about the game. Then you take a second to realize what’s going on. Absolutely you go out there and pay your respects to the fans for supporting us through the season.”
A day after his hometown arena hosted its final game – Edmonton’s Rexall Place, which holds a special place in Carolina Hurricanes’ fans hearts from the 2006 Stanley Cup finals – Ward played what was possibly his final game at the only home arena he’s ever known, under siege behind his young defense in a 4-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday.
In his 564th appearance, all with the Hurricanes, Ward lost to a Montreal rookie making his first NHL appearance. Charlie Lindgren’s last start came 11 days ago against Ferris State, which scored three more goals against him than the Hurricanes.
Ward also made his first NHL start here, filling in for the injured Martin Gerber in an eerie harbinger of the 2006 playoffs, when Ward took over for Gerber and backstopped the Hurricanes all the way to the Stanley Cup. In 2009, he was stellar in two seven-game series before his back gave out and the firepower of the Pittsburgh Penguins derailed that quest.
Those are his only playoff appearances, and he has to bear some of the blame for that as well. At his best, he’s unquestionably an elite NHL goalie, especially in the playoffs, but there has been too much inconsistency, too many injuries – all of which makes re-signing him, at 32, anything but a sure thing.
During warmups, his 5-year-old son Nolan held a handwritten sign against the glass – “Go Dad go, save the puck all the time” – that nearly brought Ward to tears. After 11 seasons in a Hurricanes uniform, Thursday may have been the last time he wore that sweater on this ice.
“I tried to not think about it, to be honest with you, but how can you not?” Ward said. “Everybody knows the situation with my contract ending at the end of the season, but I tried to focus on the game and winning a hockey game.”
Certainly there remains a chance Ward could be back. What the Hurricanes need is a short-term solution, someone to get them through the next couple of years as Alex Nedeljkovic gets some seasoning in the AHL and as a backup in the NHL. That’s going to take at least two or three years if Nedeljkovic even pans out, as promising as his future looks at the moment. Maybe it takes two guys over five years. Rent to own. That sort of thing.
This team isn’t far off. If general manager Ron Francis can leverage some of his draft picks for some legitimate help at forward and the young defensemen continue to improve, there’s no reason the Hurricanes can’t make the playoffs next season if they have the right goalie.
Who that goalie is, who knows?
At the right price, it might be Ward. It also feels like it’s time for a fresh start, for both Ward and the Hurricanes. After the game, Ward went straight from postgame workout to players’ lounge, declining a request to speak with the media – then, about 15 minutes later, apologized and agreed to meet outside the dressing room. He spoke thoughtfully for about 2 ½ minutes.
If this was it for Ward here, he probably deserved better than a meaningless game in a half-full building. There were also big chunks of his career where the Hurricanes and their fans deserved better, too. But Ward delivered two magical playoff runs and a Stanley Cup, broke every longevity record in the team’s books and will exit, if he is indeed exiting, as one of the most beloved players in the franchise’s history.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock