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Slimmed-down Cam Ward off to great start for Carolina Hurricanes @NHLdotcom

Who is that masked man?

Fans in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal may not immediately recognize the man tending net for the Carolina Hurricanes on their Canadian road trip this week. But it is indeed Cam Ward.

The 23-year-old goaltender is slimmer and quicker and he's off to a great start, improving to 2-0-1 on the young season with Tuesday's 7-1 rout over the Maple Leafs. Next up are the Senators on Thursday night.

"I worked hard this summer and got myself probably in the best shape I've ever been in my entire life," Ward told The Canadian Press.

It's certainly noticeable. He's got the washboard stomach of a serious surfer dude. Asked whether he had lost weight from last season, Ward's face beams with pride.

"Just a few ... 25 pounds," said the former Red Deer junior star.

The weight loss comes as a result of his year-end exit meeting with head coach Peter Laviolette and GM Jim Rutherford last April.

"They expressed that was an area that I needed to improve upon," said Ward. "So I committed myself to stick around Raleigh this summer and train with (strength conditioning coach) Peter Friesen and got some help with our nutritionist that got me on the right program. Next thing you know the pounds just shedded off."

Laviolette challenged not only Ward but all of his players to get into better shape.

"After we won the Cup I think our conditioning dropped a little bit and maybe that little bit was enough not to make the playoffs," said Laviolette. "Cam listened and reacted through the course of the five months in the summer better than most probably and he came back in phenomenal shape."

The results so far speak for themselves. He's allowed only five goals on 102 shots, sporting a sparkling 1.66 goals-against average and .951 save percentage.

"He has played extremely well," said Laviolette. "I think when you become fit like that - like he is now - I think you carry a confidence in life first, and you can carry that into your job, carry that into your work ethic in practice. He looks extremely quick.

"You feel better, you feel less fatigued and your recovery time is better. He's just got a sharper day-to-day way of living."

Ward is moving from post-to-post like he never has.

"I do feel a lot quicker out there and I think part of the reason is because of the weight," Ward said.

One play showed that perfectly Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre, when he quickly came out to challenge Mats Sundin in the second period, stopping a shot from the high slot by the Leafs captain.

"Mats Sundin is a very highly skilled player and I have to do the best I can to take away as much net as possible," said Ward. "He's a got a great shot but I put myself in a good position where he didn't have much to shoot at."

Ward is on a mission. He knows what some people said of him last season, when he struggled with a 2.93 GAA and .897 save percentage, numbers that didn't crack the top 30 among NHL goalies. Was his Conn Smythe Trophy from 2006 a fluke?

"People are going to have their opinions but I know what I'm capable of doing," said Ward, Carolina's first pick, 25th overall, in the 2002 NHL entry draft. "It's just a matter of going out there and playing to the best of my capability. But yes, I had a lot of time to think this summer.

"I'm doing the best I can to get myself not only physically but mentally prepared each and every night and not let one game slip by."

It's easy to forget because of his Stanley Cup performance in 2006 but this is only his second season as a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL. He played only 28 regular-season games in 2005-06 behind Martin Gerber before taking over in the playoffs. He played 60 games last season in his first crack as the starter, going 30-21-6 but like the rest of his teammates, seemed to suffer from Cup hangover.

"We had a long summer to think things over. But we've been able to put that in the past," said Ward.

"Guys were able to re-charge the batteries and come to camp in really good shape and we're feeling really good about ourselves.... We're going to have some fun this year."

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