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Canes' Elite are League's Elite

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes

Two Hurricanes All-Stars were probably expecting the honor. The third could only hope.

Paul Branecky
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With Eric Staal (41 points in 41 games) and Jeff Skinner (first among rookies with 32 points) virtually locks to make the main roster and the rookie contingent for the SuperSkills event, respectively, those announcements won’t come as any kind of shock. 

While those who follow the Hurricanes on a game-by-game basis won’t be surprised by the first-ever selection of Cam Ward, the honor is nonetheless a long time coming for a player who has narrowly missed out on All-Star and Olympic honors in the past.

“To be able to consider yourself an All-Star in your career is pretty neat,” said Ward. “It’s something that will now always be on my resume and forever will be with me.”

Ward, who was one of five goalies selected Tuesday to join the fan-elected Marc-Andre Fleury on the main roster, ranks among the top 10 in saves, save percentage and wins. He really built his case over his last 19 games, a stretch that dates back to mid-November, by posting a 2.06 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.

“We’ve seen him play some fantastic hockey for long stretches of time, and this year he came in and played very well right from the start,” said coach Paul Maurice. “Even in games where he wasn’t his best, he was still very efficient. He gives us a chance to win every night, and we believe that that’s his game now.”

“He’s probably the most important piece of our team,” said Staal. “We’re at where we’re at right now … because of him and his play.”

Ward joins Fleury, Henrik Lundqvist, Tim Thomas, Jonas Hiller and Carey Price as goaltenders headed to the event.

“It’s a great honor when you look at the names, but I think Cam’s in that group,” said Maurice. “It’s well deserved for him.”

If the All-Star Game presents a chance for skaters to show their individual skills in a wide-open setting, that’s not necessarily true of the goalies. Then again, in the absence of any kind of defensive game, there should be an opportunity to make some highlight-reel saves.

“It’s usually not very fun for the goalies, but it’s still an honor,” said Staal. “I’m sure Cam will get a lot of shots.”

“I think it’s a tremendous honor, and I also think that it’s a tough weekend,” joked Maurice. “I’d be really happy if they decided not to play him. It would be perfect. Make the team, and then sit on the bench and watch. That would be excellent.”

This year’s game will mark the fourth consecutive appearance for Staal, which breaks a franchise mark set by Kevin Dineen from 1987-1989. 

“It’s an honor every time,” said Staal, who added that there would probably be more noise each time he touches the puck than in past events. “You want to be recognized among the elite in the league, and for me to be a part of that this year is an incredible honor, especially being in our home building in front of our fans.”

The only drama surrounding Staal’s All-Star experience will be his potential selection as one of the team’s captains, as voted by the participating players. In that role, he would be responsible for drafting his team – something that could prove difficult with both Ward and younger brother Marc Staal in the player pool.

It would appear that the lobbying has already begun.

“I might have to try and vote in my good pal Eric Staal so I could hopefully get selected a little bit higher than maybe if someone else was choosing it,” said Ward.

If Skinner’s selection was a no-brainer at the time it was made, it still would have been difficult to foresee earlier in the season. Only a small amount of players go directly to the NHL in their draft years, and fewer still make an impact like Skinner, the team’s third-highest scorer, has in Carolina.

“The biggest thing with any elite player in this league is their competitiveness, and he competes every shift and every practice,” said Staal. “I think he’s improved as the year’s gone on, and he recognizes that at this point he’s counted on.”

“I was just trying to make the team in the first eight or nine games, not knowing if I was going to stay here or go back to Kitchener,” said Skinner, who called the experience “surreal”. “It’s pretty cool the way it all worked out, and I think you just try to take it and run with it.”

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