Back-up goalie Ward-ing off Habs


RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Every goalie knows what it’s like to be the center of attention. Right or wrong, the spotlight always seems to find the player between the pipes.

Cam Ward wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be playing the position,” he said Saturday. “It’s something as a little kid, you enjoy the pressure of the big games. You want to be that go-to guy. I thrive on that.”

The 22-year-old rookie, who spent the regular season as the backup for the Carolina Hurricanes, is back in his element in the Eastern Conference series against Montreal.

Since replacing Martin Gerber in the first period of Game 2, Ward has been mostly spectacular to help the Hurricanes recover from an 0-2 hole.

He made 27 saves in his first career playoff start when the series shifted to the Canadiens’ home ice, and Carolina won 2-1 in overtime.

Ward was nearly as good Friday night, stopping 23 more shots in a 3-2 victory that evened the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.

And most everyone else in his locker room gives him the credit heading into Game 5 on Sunday night.

“It’s huge, he was the difference to get us back in,” captain Rod Brind’Amour said. “He’s provided us with a lot of stability and confidence, that we can just go out and play our game. You can’t speak enough for what he’s done.”

There was some evidence that Ward could do the job. Last season, his first as a professional, he set franchise records at Lowell of the AHL for victories (27), shutouts (6), save percentage (.937) and goals-against (1.99).

He was nearly as good in the playoffs, recording five victories and two shutouts for the Lock Monsters.

In his first National Hockey League start earlier this season, Ward again flourished in the spotlight, stopping Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux, Ziggy Palffy and Sidney Crosby in a shootout as Carolina won its home opener over the Penguins.

“He hardly got excited,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “I was fired up, but he hardly was. He’s got a very even-keeled disposition. Good things happen – same Cam Ward. Bad things happen – same Cam Ward.”

So far, almost everything has been good.

“We had nothing to hold back,” Ward said. “We were facing a little bit of adversity, but once again, we’re confident in the guys we have in the dressing room.”

One of those is Brind’Amour, a 17-year veteran who has four goals in the past three games of the series. He had the winning goal Friday night, a game after he forced overtime in by scoring in the third period.

It all came after his best regular season in 10 years – Brind’Amour tallied 31 goals and 39 assists in 78 games while leading all NHL forwards in ice time.

“His goal in Game 3 to tie it exemplified everything that he stands for,” Laviolette said. “He never quit, he just kept skating, kept working, kept pushing through the defense and finally got a piece of the puck.”

As befits his persona, Brind’Amour deflected any credit to the rest of the team.

“It’s not about one guy, it needs to be about every guy chipping in, getting it done,” he said. “We don’t care which guy is the hero, as long as it’s in this room.”

For Montreal, it might be more about who’s not there. Captain Saku Koivu was struck in the eye by an errant stick from Carolina’s Justin Williams in Game 3, and he was hospitalized.

The Canadiens have ruled out Koivu for Sunday night, and his continued absence might affect his teammates’ chemistry.

“I don’t pick that up,” coach and general manager Bob Gainey said. “I don’t think the players have time – they come to the rink to play and I didn’t see anybody sort of looking and wondering if someone was going to show up out of the blue.”

AP-ES-04-29-06 1844EDT