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Canadiens-Hurricanes Preview

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During last season's playoffs, goaltender Cam Ward's rise from a 22-year-old backup to Conn Smythe Trophy winner started by helping Carolina rally from a two-game deficit to stun the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round.

In an Eastern Conference quarterfinal rematch Thursday, Ward and the defending Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes (6-5-2) host the Canadiens at the RBC Center.

As a backup to Martin Gerber, Ward was 14-8-2 with a 3.68 goals-against average during the regular season. Gerber, now with Ottawa, gave up nine goals to the sixth-seeded Canadiens before being replaced by Ward midway through a 6-5 loss in double overtime in Game 2.

Ward got the start in Game 3 in Montreal and held the Canadiens to just five goals for the remainder of the series. Carolina advanced in six games, and beat New Jersey and Buffalo before going on to win its first Stanley Cup in seven games over Edmonton.

Ward finished with a 15-8 record and 2.14 GAA in the postseason. He also joined Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and Ron Hextall as the only rookie goaltenders in league history to be named playoff MVP.

After a slow start in which he lost his first three starts, Ward is 6-2-0 with a 3.12 GAA. He made a season-high 40 saves Wednesday in the Hurricanes' 5-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers.

"Cam made some really tough saves," Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said. "A lot of them seemed headed for the net, but all sudden there was a toe, a pad, a shoulder to get in the way. He was extremely sharp, extremely focused."

Ray Whitney and Rod Brind'Amour - two keys on offense during the 'Canes Cup run - each had two goals and two assists. Carolina has won three games from Atlanta this season and trail the Southeast Division-leading Thrashers by five points.

With new coach Guy Carbonneau behind the bench, the Canadiens (6-2-3) have been inconsistent in the early going, alternating wins and losses in their last eight games.

Cristobal Huet, who recorded seven shutouts in just 33 regular-season starts in 2005-06, has not been able to duplicate that success so far. He's 2-1-2, but hasn't allowed fewer than two goals in any of his starts.

The play of David Aebischer, acquired in March from Colorado for Jose Theodore and projected to be Huet's backup, apparently is forcing Carbonneau to soon make a decision on a starter.

"We have two good goaltenders, but some point soon we'll start riding one that's hot," Carbonneau said. "I don't know when, but we're close. David has been solid every game he's played this year. I think he's getting more confident every game. He makes saves look easy even when they're not."

Aebischer improved to 4-1-1 by making 31 saves, and Christopher Higgins scored his league-high third short-handed goal Tuesday in a 4-2 win over Ottawa.

"I guess it's just intensity and anticipation," said Higgins, whose seven goals overall lead the team. "Some guys have it and some guys don't, and that's why some guys are penalty killers. I try to use my speed to get on them and let them make plays and try to force turnovers as much as possible."

Saku Koivu has not scored a goal in 10 games for Montreal since netting two in 5-4 season-opening shootout loss Oct. 6 against Buffalo.

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