After calling the far left corner of the dressing room home since 2006, Ward was relocated to the front of the room in the summer’s renovations.
“It’s a little bit different when you play seven years in the same stall and then get moved,” he said with a smile. “They did an outstanding job in renovating this dressing room, and I get to sit beside my good ol’ pal Chad LaRose, so that’s always nice.”
It’s a small adjustment, sure, but adjustment seems to be the operative word for many around the league in this young season.
For Ward, it’s the adjustment to game-speed without the benefit of exhibition games. It’s the adjustment to a new, but familiar goalie coach. It’s the adjustment – however slight and perhaps meaningless – to a new stall in the dressing room.
On the ice, Ward is settling into his game, getting more comfortable period by period. Going from zero to 60 was seemingly the toughest on the goaltender position. Not seeing game-action in a preseason setting, Ward said, was the biggest setback.
“You have to emphasize your practices and make sure you’re doing what you can to get sharp as quick as possible,” he said. “It’s been a difficult adjustment for myself, but I’ll continue to work at it.”
The best way to overcome early adversity is to keep playing. Ward has started in four of the team’s first five games. He said he thought Monday’s game against Boston – despite the 5-3 outcome – was his best performance thus far.
“I expect myself to be playing at my potential right off the bat, and it’s been difficult,” he said. “I thought my best game was against Boston. I hate to lose, and I’m never satisfied with that, but I felt I was moving well, and I felt more like my old self. I want to take the positives away from a game like that.”
In four games, Ward has recorded a 4.50 goals-against average and a .861 save percentage. Those numbers are off-pace of what might be expected from a top goaltender, but Ward said he’s only concerned about one statistic: wins and losses.
“I take pride in it (goals-against average and save percentage), but it doesn’t tell the whole story like wins and losses do,” he said.
“We all know how difficult it was getting out of the block for different guys,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “I see it in his game. He’s getting sharper and stronger, and that’s good for us.”
While it’s impractical to project how many games Ward will play this season, he has been a perennial workhorse; in his seven-year career, he’s played in 68 or more games – at least 83 percent of the season – four times. An equivalent marker in a 48-game season would be nearly 40 games.
In the 1994-95 48-game season, eight goaltenders played 40 or more games. Patrick Roy and Trevor Kidd ranked tied for first with 43 games played.
The shortened season heightens the importance of the backup goaltender as wins and losses become more dire. Enter seven-year NHL veteran Dan Ellis, who made 40 saves in a winning effort against Buffalo last Friday.
“I thought he played outstanding in Buffalo, and that’s what we need when he steps in,” Ward said. “I heard a lot about Dan before he came to the team, and I heard nothing but great things about how he is as a goaltender and how he is off the ice. It didn’t take us long to jell together. You have to have a good partnership. As we all know, it takes two good goaltenders through the season.”
Directly overseeing this tandem is goalie coach Greg Stefan, who rejoined the coaching staff after serving as a pro scout in 2011-12. Stefan’s predecessor, former Canes goalie Tom Barrasso, helped Ward refine the finer points of his game, he said.
“He was such a good teacher of the position in going over video and not skipping out on any of the small details,” Ward said. “You never want to be complacent. You never want to be satisfied with just being good.”
With that said, Ward is happy to again be under the tutelage of Stefan, who served as the team’s goaltending coach when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
“He knows my game. He knows how I am as a person, and we know how to interact with one another,” Ward said. “We’ve got a good track record together, so hopefully we can recreate some of that magic that we had in my rookie year.”
That magic, that feeling, that confidence is working its way back into Ward’s system after an abnormal nine-month layoff. The results might not have been immediate, but he’s determined to be better.
“My main concern is my wins and losses. Being 1-3, I’m not happy about that,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about winning hockey games.”