'Canes' Ward smooth as silk
After the first couple weeks, here are a few observations from around the crease in the Southeast.
Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward displayed an unflappable demeanor last spring and that has served him well to start the season. Ward said he felt "comfortable" right out of camp despite losing his first three starts, the first coming in a shootout at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres, the team Ward and the Hurricanes eliminated in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final. The first six goals allowed in regulation bounced in off either an opponent or a teammate -- a fact Ward says was one of the reasons he wasn't too hard on himself during the earliest goings on.
That perspective was critical as the team embarked on a seven game road trip. Five games into the ‘Canes longest trip of the season, the team is 3-2, evening their overall record at 3-3-1. Ward says he knows he is on his game when he feels "smooth" in the net. Well, the shift from comfortable to smooth translates to outstanding, as that describes Ward's play in winning three-straight -- stopping 90 of 95 shots in consecutive road wins at Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Tampa.
Speaking of Tampa, new Lightning ‘tender Marc Denis is in the process of getting acclimated to his new surroundings. One big adjustment for Denis is his in-game workload. Last season, as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets, he averaged over 30 shots a game, the 11th most in the league. So far with the Bolts, Denis is seeing less than 20 shots per game, the second fewest in the NHL behind the Red Wings' Dominik Hasek and his tiny total of 17.5 SOGA.
Lightning assistant coach and former NHL netminder Jeff Reese is impressed with Denis' focus and work ethic. He doesn't see the work-rate quotient being a factor. For his part, Denis knows he enters a situation where the nightly expectations are different in Tampa than they were with the fledgling CBJs. Some call it pressure. Denis referred to it as opportunity -- where winning is the only measure of success no matter how many stops he is called upon to make.
Finally, in Atlanta, Kari Lehtonen is off to a fabulous start, playing the best goal in the league. He posted back-to-back shutouts against Florida and Tampa en route to establishing the franchise mark for consecutive shutout minutes. After an injury- plagued rookie season, Lehtonen is healthy and motivated to atone for missing more than half of last season. The attention to strengthening his core muscle group and the adjustments made to his stance has the lanky Lehtonen stronger than ever in his lateral crease coverage. According to assistant coach Steve Weeks, who works with Lehtonen on a daily basis, his improved post-to-post coverage is a function of a more explosive initial push.
And the attention isn't restricted to on-ice only. Strength and conditioning coach Ray Bear puts Lehtonen through a rigorous pre-and-post ice session stretching regimen. All of the extra work has translated into sensational early-season play by Lehtonen in back-stopping the Thrashers to the top of the Southeast Division.