goalie Cam Ward
hasn't been too focused on the "what-ifs" this season. Instead, he's been locked in on what-have-you-done-for-me-lately.
And lately, the 25-year-old Ward has been nothing short of magnificent during his team's rapid ascent in the Eastern Conference standings.
Carolina, once on the outside looking in on the playoff race, is suddenly in control of its own destiny as the fifth seed with 89 points in the East. Through it all, Ward has been front and center.
"I think anybody who has been on the Hurricanes these past couple of years can attest that it hasn't been much fun missing the playoffs, especially after winning the Stanley Cup (in 2005-06)," Ward told NHL.com. "We're playing some really good hockey and, personally, I'm enjoying the moment. I'm treating it a little bit different this year than in the past. I'm just going out there and doing the best I can to help contribute to the team and our push to the playoffs."
Ward has gone 15-6-2 in a career-high 23 consecutive starts for the Hurricanes and has posted a 2.26 goals-against average, .919 save percentage and two shutouts in that span.
"I'd like to keep it going for as long as possible," Ward said. "I'm enjoying the opportunity I'm getting and trying to make the most of it. Quite honestly, it hasn't felt like I've started that many consecutive games and that's a credit to the coaching staff, which has done an excellent job of giving us some time off between games to relax and recharge the batteries."
Ward pointed to his team's off-day on Tuesday following an emotional 3-2 overtime triumph against the Florida Panthers
on Monday -- in which Ward made 37 saves.
"By not practicing as much as we have in the past, it helps you rest mentally and get ready for the next game," Ward said.
Behind the play of Ward and the renewed fervor to tighten up defensively as a team since the arrival of Paul Maurice
as coach in December, the Canes have gone 9-1-2 in the month of March.
"Cam has been solid and I think our group, as a whole, has done a good job with letting him see pucks but in some of those scrambles, he's just been great," Maurice said.
Still, Ward and company remember what happened last season when, despite finishing the year 10-4-1 and earning 92 points, Carolina failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight season. They are also aware that since the shootout was introduced in 2005-06, no Eastern Conference team has qualified for the postseason with fewer than 92 points.
"When you look at it, we might have been too inconsistent in past years," Ward said. "We'd have some good stretches and we'd have some bad stretches. But I think this year we've been playing a lot more consistent hockey and that's one of the things that Paul Maurice
has preached since taking over is better defensive hockey. As a goaltender, that's something that has definitely helped my play -- just knowing that we're focusing a lot more in our own end and doing the job a lot better than we have in the past."
The Hurricanes, who finished 25th in the League with a 3.00 GAA last season, are 11th this year at 2.76. Their patience on defense has also paid off offensively of late as the Canes actually hold a 49-27 scoring advantage against their opponents in March. Since the All-Star Game, the 'Canes have scored the second-most goals in the League with 95 -- the Red Wings are tops with 102.
"We're playing some really good hockey and, personally, I'm enjoying the moment. I'm treating it a little bit different this year than in the past. I'm just going out there and doing the best I can to help contribute to the team and our push to the playoffs."
-- Cam Ward
"Over the last few years, we've kind of played a run-and-gun style, looking to win games 5-4 or 5-3, and, I know it's an old cliché, but a good defense is a good offense," Ward said. "Playing better defensive hockey has opened the door offensively for our hockey team. We're scoring a lot more goals in the second half of the season."
The overtime victory in Florida was a great example of the confidence emanating from the Hurricanes' locker room these days. After yielding a power-play goal to Florida with less than five minutes remaining in the third to tie the game, the 'Canes were still able to seal the deal only 1:37 into the extra session when Ray Whitney
registered his second game-winning goal of the season. Two nights later, Carolina rallied from a one-goal deficit on third-period goals by captain Rod Brind'Amour
and Anton Babchuk
to score a 2-1 triumph over Ottawa.
"I think last year we were a little more fragile when things weren't going the way we were hoping and we would begin gripping the sticks tighter just trying to hang on," Ward said. "(Against Florida), you saw the character of this team and the confidence we're playing with. Nobody panicked and we stuck with it and waited for our opportunity and capitalized."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com