First impressions aren't always everything, so Penguins fans probably shouldn't be convinced just yet that goaltender Cam Ward is less solid in the playoffs than advertised.
Ward was a 22-year-old rookie when he backstopped Carolina to the 2006 Stanley Cup championship and earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The Hurricanes then missed the playoffs the past two years.
Now considered one of Carolina's two premier players -- center Eric Staal is the other -- Ward outdueled big-name goaltenders Martin Brodeur of New Jersey and Tim Thomas of Boston in the first two rounds of these playoffs.
Ward's first big moment Monday against the Penguins, though, was a bit awkward.
It was Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, nearly halfway through the first period at Mellon Arena, with the first goal of the series yet to be scored.
As a Carolina power play was about to expire, Ward fulfilled his role by banging his stick on the ice to count down the final seconds to let his teammates know Penguins winger Miroslav Satan would be bursting out of the penalty box.
To no avail. Satan drove across the neutral zone toward the benches, picked up a clearing pass by Matt Cooke and raced toward Ward on a breakaway. He faked a forehand shot, then deposited a backhander into the net a good foot out of Ward's reach.
"He made a great move. He really did," Ward said yesterday. "He probably made me look a little silly."
That's not the adjective his teammates would use to describe Ward, who went on to make several good stops among his 28 saves in a 3-2 loss.
"Uh, easy," Tim Gleason said of playing defense on the same team as Ward. "It's fun to play in front of him. He's one of the best goaltenders in the world."
"He gives you a chance to win every game, and that's what you need in the playoffs, or any time," Staal said. "He's been phenomenal.We're playing a good team with a lot of offensive skill. There's not another guy I would want back there."
Ward is 9-4 with a shootout loss in his career against the Penguins. During the regular season, the Penguins were 2-1-1 against Carolina, but their two wins came without him in goal. He held the Penguins to three goals over the teams' final two meetings.
Going into last night, Ward was second in the postseason in wins (nine), tied for second with two shutouts and fourth in save percentage (.926) and goals-against average (2.28). He and the Hurricanes have lost Game 1 in each of three rounds, but in the previous Game 2s, he has allowed one goal on 70 shots in the two wins.
This series is partly defined by his matchup with Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
"I'm a fan of Marc-Andre," Ward said. "I think he's an elite goaltender in this league. He probably deserves a little bit more recognition for what he's done. He's one of the quickest goaltenders I've ever seen."
Fleury returned the favor, citing Ward's calm demeanor regardless of the chaos surrounding him.
Veteran Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour also likes that Ward attribute.
"At this point [in the playoffs], all the goalies are good," Brind'Amour said. "You want a guy that doesn't get rattled. He's that type."
But not flashy.
"He's not overly acrobatic," coach Paul Maurice said. "He's been efficient and controlled in his movement.
"Even Brodeur and Thomas played with a little more reckless abandon in the net and maybe a little bit more flair. Cam's a little bit more staid in his approach, more [playing the] angles. But in terms of efficiency, he was at least as good as both of them."
Ward was a workhorse for the Hurricanes in the regular season, getting decisions in 67 of their 82 games, going 39-23-5 with five shutouts.
"We're at a point now where we just so completely take him for granted that it's fantastic," Maurice said. "We don't even think about it -- just go in the net and stop all the pucks."
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