Lost in all the hype surrounding Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward and his career-high 25 consecutive starts (17-6-2), spanning almost two months, is the fact backup Michael Leighton has remained the consummate teammate.
It's something Ward, who was named the NHL's First Star of the Month for March, doesn't take for granted.
If you'll recall, Leighton filled in admirably early in the season when Ward was struggling to find his groove with a lower-body injury. The 27-year-old Leighton won four of his first five starts before eventually giving way to Ward in late December.
"Obviously, when I came here, I accepted the backup role because Cam's record speaks for itself," Leighton told NHL.com earlier this season. "He's won a Stanley Cup and was MVP in the playoffs, so he's done enough to show that he is the No. 1 goalie on this team and I definitely support that."
An appreciative Ward, who lately has the look of the goalie who garnered the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2006, is certainly grateful to have Leighton by his side.
"Michael's been outstanding during this stretch," Ward said. "As a goalie, I can relate to his situation and it's not much fun sitting on the bench and not playing that much but, that said, we are a team and it takes two goalies to make up a team. He's been a tremendous support and it's something that I definitely appreciate in a partner. Quite frankly, the team is confident with whoever is in the net. The reason Michael Leighton is in the NHL is because he can play and perform at this level."
Leighton, who becomes an unrestricted free agent following next season, is confident he'd make a fine starter in the League someday.
"Obviously, the better Cam plays, the better I want to play, because some day I want to be a No. 1 goalie in this League too," he said. "But either way, we have to push each other and remain friends on and off the ice. I think we've done a good job with that."
Eager Enstrom -- It appears Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Tobias Enstrom has rediscovered his comfort zone playing alongside rookie Zach Bogosian.
Enstrom, who has accounted for 17 points (13 assists) in the last 17 games, was paired with Bogosian after Atlanta dealt veteran Niclas Havelid to New Jersey earlier in March. Additionally, coach John Anderson has had his second-year blueliner back on the first power-play unit and involved in the penalty kill. In fact, Enstrom scored the first shorthanded goal of his career in a 4-3 victory against the Colorado Avalanche on Feb. 24.
"I think he's getting the ice time right now and he's a very smart player," said Thrashers left wing Slava Kozlov. "It's very hard to beat him 1-on-1 and he joins the rushes so his game is two-dimensional. It's great to see his development."
"He's kind of like a new guy," Anderson told Mike Knobler of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I love what he's doing. It's what I've wanted him to do all year. I've had meetings with him. I told him I wanted him to go up ice, I wanted him to skate, I wanted him to use his assets. He was playing more of a defensive role, which is not horrible, but what he brings to the table is his skating ability, the ability to carry the puck and move it out of our zone on his own. When he's not doing that, he's not being total."
It's quite a turnaround for Enstrom, who connected for just 1 goal and 5 assists in his first 17 games of the season.
"It's all about working hard and keeping going," Enstrom told the Journal-Constitution. "From my point of view, I didn't play bad (before). I didn't score enough points. That's when you have to try to battle hard. It was tough, too. The team wasn't playing good."
Lightning in a bottle -- It appears the Tampa Bay Lightning received much more than a prospect-in-waiting when they acquired 22-year-old defenseman Matt Lashoff from Boston at the trade deadline in exchange for Mark Recchi.
In eight games since joining Tampa, Lashoff has recorded 6 assists and 10 penalty minutes. He has also averaged more than 23 minutes each game for interim coach Rick Tocchet and has played a vital role on the club's power play.
"There are elements to his game that are intriguing to us," Tocchet told Mark Pukalo of TBL.com. "Now, it's the other stuff. He has to get in the best shape he can over the summer and get a little more bite to his game. If he does those two things, I think you have an excellent chance for him to be a really good defenseman for us next season."
Lashoff, whose younger brother, Brian, signed an entry-level contract with the defending Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings last fall, is grateful to have the opportunity.
"I wanted to be a professional athlete first," Lashoff said. "I thought for me to make the NHL and grow at the pace I wanted, the best thing was to go to juniors. It was the toughest hockey decision I've ever had to make, but it worked out for the best."
Fight to the finish -- With each victory down the stretch, the confidence grows in Florida.
"I think we've been playing better; we just need the full focus for 60 minutes and play for 60 minutes," Panthers General Manager Jacques Martin said. "I still believe in this team. We're healthy now. It's a matter of finding a way to get the job done. We went three months at a pretty good pace. You find hurdles. We have to overcome them."
"We haven't been in this situation since I've been in the NHL, so it's definitely nice to be in it and have a chance to get back to the playoffs," said fifth-season forward Nathan Horton.
"We're in the sprint phase," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer told floridapanthers.com. "We talk all season about the season being a marathon. We're in the bell lap now, and it's a sprint to the finish."
Ice chips -- Atlanta Thrashers captain Ilya Kovalchuk feels coach John Anderson has been the driving force behind the club's late-season surge, during which it has gone 10-4 in its last 14 games. "It's his first year in the NHL. It's tough to be the coach in the NHL. He's shown everybody he's the guy who's going to take us to the playoffs next year." … Alex Ovechkin's 33rd home goal of the season on Wednesday broke the team mark he set in 2007-08. Washington enforcer Donald Brashear missed his ninth consecutive game with a knee injury on Wednesday against the Islanders, but the team expects him to be available for the playoffs. … Carolina goalie Cam Ward is the third player in franchise history to be named NHL Player of the Month (March). Eric Staal was named in October 2005, and Mike Rogers in December 1980 when the team resided in Hartford. "It's a great honor but the most important thing is winning hockey games," Ward said. "The team has played a lot better defensively in front of me. I've gotten a lot of help from (goaltending coach) Tom Barrasso and obviously the opportunity to play by Paul Maurice. I'm enjoying that opportunity." … How's this for motivation -- if the Florida Panthers fail to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it would be the eighth consecutive season they've missed the postseason, tying the 1959-67 Bruins and 1975-83 Capitals for the second-longest drought in NHL history. … Tampa Bay assistant coach Wes Walz ran the team's 45-minute practice Wednesday morning on the campus of Boston University. The idea to have Walz run the session was interim coach Rick Tocchet's: "Sometimes it's good to let one guy do it, with a different voice."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.