Hockey Stuff: Canes Serve Notice

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CAM WARD | NHL’s “#1 Star” for this week 

The Carolina Hurricanes put the rest of the NHL on notice last week that any remnants from last year’s Stanley Cup hangover are long gone.

With three road victories in five nights on a Canadian swing, the team’s record improved to 4-1-1, 3rd-best in the league. Doing it the way they did – with a lopsided win in Toronto a week ago Tuesday, ending Ottawa’s perfect 5-0 start to the season Thursday and then taking it to Montreal on Saturday – created a buzz. All of a sudden, the Canes have the league’s second-best power play, the NHL Player of the Week in goalie Cam Ward and a resurgent offensive leader in Eric Staal, who seems to have regained the touch from the 2005-06 Cup-winning year with five goals in his first six games.

“I think it’s huge,” Ward said of the team’s start this week. “I think as a team to get off to a great start, it does help the confidence of the team. And I think we’re just doing a great job of taking it one game at a time and trying to get better and better as each one goes by.”

Ward was in net for all three games. His 1.67 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in Canada not only gave him league-wide player-of-the-week honors, but re-established him – after a mediocre season last year – as the go-to goalie on a team seen once again as a legitimate Cup contender.

The trick will be to keep the momentum going. The Hurricanes are in the midst of a rare five-day break, not taking the ice until next Friday. They’re back in town skating, practicing and recovering from various bumps and minor injuries – defenseman Mike Commodore, in particular, has been out since the season’s first week – and will head out again Thursday. They’ll be in Pittsburgh against the Penguins Friday night before concluding the road stretch Saturday in Philadelphia against the born-again Flyers, who won again on Tuesday against the winless Atlanta Thrashers, stretching their record to 4-1. On Monday, the Canes begin a three-game homestand against the Vancouver Canucks back at the RBC Center.

Time off can make the hot cold and the cold hot. Ward has been good from the opening bell, but the team’s power play was frigid out of the gate, picking up from where it left off last season. The trip through Ontario and Quebec, though, saw the power play heat up rapidly. Beginning with a 7-1 romp over the Maple Leafs in which they were 4-for-8 with the man advantage, the Hurricanes ended the three-game stretch 7-for-18 to bring the power-play’s average for the season to 26.5 percent. That’s tied for second in the league with Vancouver going into Tuesday’s games. A power play that didn’t click probably cost the Hurricanes a trip to the playoffs last season, so the confidence gained by revving up so fast this season needs to stay high, as does the rest of the team’s scoring – hovering around the top five in the league at 3.50 goals per game.

Ward is the catalyst, though. The power play might not always be on fire, but Ward, having lost more than 20 pounds in the off-season, can be consistent and give the team a chance night in and night out. That was something the Hurricanes missed last season.

“Obviously, last year was a disappointing season for everybody,” he said on a conference call this week. “But I think it’s fair to say I’ve seen the highs, I’ve seen the lows now, and hopefully I’m better because of it.

“I took it upon myself this summer to do the best job that I could to get myself in better conditioned shape. And with the help of the training staff and the help of a nutritionist, I was able to get myself in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I think I’m feeling better on the ice because of it, and it’s paying dividends for me.”

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