In the NHL, championship teams are built from the goal out. Face it, you can't win, no matter how good your forwards are, with a weak goalie.
You might be able to hide a player with defensive weaknesses at power forward in basketball or right field in baseball, but in hockey, you can't hide a porous goalie.
Cam Ward, who led the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup, was not as sharp last season in his first full year as the Hurricanes' No. 1 goalie as he was in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ward went 15-8 en route to the Stanley Cup with a 2.13 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage. But he was 30-21-6 with a 2.93 GAA and .897 save percentage last season as the Hurricanes missed the playoffs by four points.
Ward wasn't pleased. Neither was management. So Ward stayed in Raleigh after the season and worked with Pete Friesen, Carolina’s head athletic therapist/strength and conditioning coach as well as a nutritionist. As a result, he dropped 25 pounds to 177 pounds playing weight and is much quicker in net.
Ward wasn't the only reason the Hurricanes stumbled last season. Few championship teams repeat and there are many reasons why, including forgetting how hard you worked to win the title. The Hurricanes strengthened themselves this season at the important center position by re-acquiring Matt Cullen and signing free agent Jeff Hamilton. Both have played important roles in the revival.
The Hurricanes stand atop the Southeast Division with a 4-1-1 record. They have outscored the opposition 21-11 and are 1-0-1 at home and an impressive 3-1-0 at home. The road record is impressive because the Hurricanes just completed a three-game road sweep of the Toronto Maple Leafs (7-1), Ottawa Senators (5-3) and Montreal Canadiens (3-1).
Ward made 27 saves against both the Maple Leafs and Senators and 23 against the Canadiens. In six games, he's stopped 147 of 156 shots for a .942 save percentage and 1.79 goals-against average.
The Hurricanes started 14-3-1 when they won the Stanley Cup in 2005-06 and they're off to another strong start. Ward believes that's necessary to winning.
"I think it's huge," he said. "Look at last season. "Toward the end of the season, when we were fighting for our playoff lives, we knew there had been games we could have won early in the year. You hate to look back at the season and wish you had a better start. Every game is huge, not just the last week or month, the entire season. For your team to get off to a great start helps the confidence of the team. We're doing a great job of taking one game at a time and trying to be better in every game."
Ward knew going into training camp that he had a much better attitude and fitness level. He was glad to see he wasn't the only one.
"Right from Day One at training camp, you could see the guys were more excited and hungry for the upcoming season," Ward said. "As disappointing as last season was, we wound up having a long summer layover and we got some bodies healthy. It helped to recharge the batteries. It was definitely noticeable."
NHL players and coaches use the word "accountability" a lot and although Ward is in only his third NHL season, he has incorporated it into his thinking. His veteran teammates have to be encouraged by Ward's hard work this summer and his willingness to accept his share of the blame.
Ward got away with a lack of fitness and a somewhat chubby body in his rookie season when he played only 28 regular-season games. He played 60 games last season and his lack of conditioning caught up with him, negatively affecting his team. He did his penance in Friesen's “Church of Perpetual Pain and Sweat.”
"You always think you are in OK shape and I think I was guilty of that," Ward said. "Not until you get yourself into better shape do you see the difference. I feel quicker and my stamina is better. I committed myself after last season to stick around Raleigh with Pete and I did an increased cardio work load. Anytime you run outside around here, you will lose weight and that's what happened.
"I weighed 198 in my first season and over 200 pounds last year," Ward continued. "I'm at 177 this morning. Failing to win last year had to do with a little bit of everything and it was obviously a disaster for everybody. I've seen the highs and lows of the NHL now and I'm better for it. I did the best job I could this summer to get into better shape. All those snacks I got away with in the past, no more. I got some help from the nutritionist to be more consistent with what I eat. The first few weeks, I ate nothing but protein and cut out carbs. Now, it's balanced and I watch the portions."
Ward was asked if he did enough the previous summer and he gave an honest answer.
"It's tough to say. That summer was a whirlwind," Ward said. "I wouldn't have traded it for anything. I was probably home in Sherwood Park for a month because I got married that summer. Ultimately, it was a very busy summer, but there was no excuse for last season.
"With my position, goaltending, consistency is such a big deal. There were times last year that I was probably guilty of going through the motions. I'm doing the best I can this year to be physically and mentally sharp and not let one game slip by."