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Canes' Ward confident Carolina is back

by John McGourty
The memory endures of Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward extending his left leg to stop Edmonton Oilers right winger Fernando Pisani's rebound shot in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup. That shot would have tied the game at 2-2 with less than four minutes to play.

A couple minutes later, Justin Williams scored an open-net goal to give Carolina a 3-1 victory and the Stanley Cup. Ward, who was a backup when the Stanley Cup Playoffs began, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the postseason. Ward became only the third rookie goalie in 35 years to win the Stanley Cup, joining Ken Dryden in 1971 and Patrick Roy in 1986 and the fourth to win the Conn Smythe, joining Dryden, Roy and the Philadelphia Flyers' Ron Hextall in 1987.

"It was a great time. I can't forget it," said Ward, who was 14-8-2 record with a 3.68 goals-against average and .882 save percentage during his rookie season. "It was the greatest time in my life and it's something we all strive to get back there. I realized how fortunate I am to have that kind of success so early in my professional career.

"You could just look around the dressing room at the time and you saw guys like Rod Brind'Amour and Glen Wesley, guys who had waited 17 years or more to win their first Stanley Cup. To be able to do it my first year is something I'll cherish for the rest of my life."

Ward has been Carolina's first-string goalie since winning the Cup, but in those two seasons, the Hurricanes have failed to make the playoffs, falling last season by losing the final game of the season at home.

"That was definitely a disappointing way to finish the season," Ward said. "We had fought all season long and especially gave it a push right up to that last game. For whatever reason, it didn't work out in our favor, the last game. We had injuries but, excuses aside, we just didn't get it done.

"In our dressing room, we've used it as fuel to get ready for this season. We want to get a good start and be consistent through the season so we don't have to get to that point, where it's down to one game."

Ward's record during the past two seasons is solid 67-46-11. He has a 2.97 career GAA and .897 save percentage, although he ranked fourth in the NHL last year with 37 wins. He also set career lows with a 2.75 GAA and .904 save percentage last season. In the final 20 games of last season, Ward went 13-5-2.

The Hurricanes led the Southeast Division for most of 2007-08, but were passed by the Washington Capitals on the final weekend and missed the Eastern Conference playoffs by two points. Few faulted Ward for the team's failure because there were important injuries to captain Brind'Amour, Matt Cullen, David Tanabe, Justin Williams and Ray Whitney.

"They weren't just injuries," Ward said. "They were injuries to our top-four forwards. It's always tough to fill those guys' shoes. At the same time, it gives an opportunity to someone else to come in here and play with a lot of energy. Guys did come up from Albany and did a good job for us in the last stretch. By the same token, the players we lost were our best and they were very hard to replace.”

In his season-ending press conference, Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford credited Ward for outstanding play at the beginning and end of the season, but included him in the group that didn't play well for about 35 games in the middle of the season.

"Sure, there were a handful of games you can point to where he and the team probably would have viewed him as maybe we would have liked him to play a little bit better, but he played almost 70 games and when you play that many games you’re not going to be at your best every night," Rutherford said. "But overall he had a good year. He put us in a position to be in the playoffs, and certainly I can’t say it was the goaltending that did not get us in the playoffs, because it wasn’t.”

Ward did himself a lot of good before last season, going on a rigorous conditioning program that helped him lose a lot of weight. He recently said he may have overdone the conditioning, but that he has found a better balance this year.

"In our dressing room, we've used it as fuel to get ready for this season. We want to get a good start and be consistent through the season so we don't have to get to that point, where it's down to one game." -- Cam Ward

"I think the Southeast Division is very tough," Ward said. "But every division is tough. There is never a point in the NHL where you can sit back and relax against any specific team. Every team has a legitimate chance to win every game they play. Tampa Bay made a lot of moves this summer. Washington? You saw what they did last season. They are a very highly skilled team and it's a real battle every time we face them. But, at the end of the day, we have to worry about we do and take care of our business."

Ward is sure that if the Hurricanes take care of business, they'll have the full support of their fans.

"We are very lucky to have the fans we have in Carolina," he said. "Ever since the Cup, there has been a lot of energy for the game of hockey in the community. We've gotten tremendous support despite the disappointing last two seasons, missing the playoffs. We're going to do the best that we can to get into the playoffs and give the fans the opportunity to create the atmosphere they gave us during the Stanley Cup."

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