Twenty-two-year-old Cam Ward joined some elite company when he was voted the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the MVP of the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was only the third rookie goaltender to receive that honor. The others were Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, who led the 1971 and 1986 Montreal Canadiens, respectively, to NHL championships.
Ironically, Carolina Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette didn’t even have Ward slotted as the team’s starting goalie going into the playoffs. Martin Gerber was No. 1. When the Switzerland-born Gerber played erratically early in post-season play, Laviolette installed Ward as the starter.
It was a wise move, one that helped the Hurricanes win their first Cup. Ward became a media star when he helped lead the ’Canes past the surprising Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference finals, a tough, hard-hitting series. He impressed even more during the Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Ward was charged with helping turn back the team of his boyhood. He learned to play hockey in local youth leagues and rooted for his heroes from a seat in Section 102 at Rexall Place, the Oilers’ arena.
Ward struggled in Game One, but his ’Canes won, 5-4, on a goal in the last minute of regulation play. He sparkled in Game Two, a 5-0 pounding of the Oilers, making 25 saves and boosting his playoff record to 13-5. His next win would match his regular-season total.
“It’s a new beginning, a chance to start from scratch,” Ward told the Associated Press after the shutout. “I’m just enjoying it. I’m surrounded by a group of teammates who are making me feel right at home.”
Ward and the Hurricanes lost the third game on a controversial goal by the Oilers’ Ryan Smith, who was in the Carolina crease when the puck bounced off him and into the Carolina net.
Ward had 20 saves as the ’Canes rebounded to win Game Four, 2-1. His positioning was perfect, making many of his saves appear unremarkable.
The Oilers came out hitting in Game Five to win in overtime, beating Ward five times. The 5-4 loss wasn’t so much a matter of the Hurricanes playing badly as it was the Oilers’ improved play with the puck and in their defensive zone. Fernando Pisani got the winner early in OT, intercepting a poor pass by Carolina’s Cory Stillman and beating Ward on his glove-hand side.
Still ahead in the series, three games to two, Ward and the Hurricanes stumbled again in the sixth game, in Edmonton. The 4-0 loss would be their worst performance of the finals.
Game seven was to be played before what promised to be a rowdy home crowd in Raleigh. “They’ve (’Canes fans) been a huge boost to us all year,” Ward said. “We’ve got to use that to our advantage.”
Would Ward play well or poorly in Game Seven? Very well, thank you. Carolina jumped into the lead early and never relinquished it. Ward made 22 saves as the ’Canes won both the game, 3-1, and the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Ward made two good saves in the first 90 seconds of the third period, one of them a remarkable leg pad stop. After the Oilers scored, they pressured the rookie goaltender. His teammates responded defensively, but Ward had to come up big one more time, making a great save with 3:40 left in the period on a rebound shot to preserve the Canes’ 2-1 lead at that point.
Asked “about your dream” by a television reporter afterwards, Ward interrupted, saying, “I’m living it now.”
Now that all the celebrating is behind the Hurricanes, Laviolette and general manager Jim Rutherford, who played goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, have a pleasant problem to address. Whom should the Hurricanes make their No. 1 goalie for next season? Martin Gerber, an unrestricted free agent whose great play during the regular season got the ’Canes into the playoffs, or Cam Ward, whose stellar play clinched the Stanley Cup for Carolina? Nice dilemma to have, eh?