By Allan Muir
Cam Ward was looking forward to a restful day on the bench when his Carolina Hurricanes faced off against the Florida Panthers on Sunday. But when backup Dan Ellis turned up sick, Ward was pressed into duty.
It looks like he'll have plenty of time to rest now.
The Hurricanes announced this morning that the star goaltender suffered a medial collateral sprain in Sunday's game against the Panthers. While surgery is not required, he'll be out six to eight weeks. And with just eight weeks left in the regular season, the math doesn't look good for Ward to be a meaningful player as the Southeast-leading 'Canes try to land a playoff berth.
Ward was injured when defender Justin Faulk tumbled into him while trying to derail Florida's Jack Skille. Ward continued to play, but collapsed after making his next save and needed to be helped off the ice.
That injury shines the spotlight on Ellis and Carolina GM Jim Rutherford. Ellis will move, for now at least, into the starting job. He's played a 1/1A role before and his numbers this season -- 2.53 GAA and .923 save percentage -- are actually better than Ward's. Outside of one five-goal debacle against the Lightning, Ellis hasn't allowed more than two per game this season and has one shutout to his credit. There's a real chance the Hurricanes catch lightning in a bottle and Ellis surprises with a steady performance down the stretch.
But Ellis/Justin Peters (who is likely to be recalled from Charlotte this morning) makes for one of the conference's least imposing tandem. And with the 'Canes finally starting to gel after some significant off-season moves, Rutherford may feel like he can't afford to lose any momentum. That doesn't necessarily mean his reaction will be to add a goalie.
Ward has never really been the type to carry a team on his back, so the Canes aren't fully reliant on him to succeed. He's played well over the past couple of weeks, but his inconsistencies have always demanded a strong effort in front of him. That puts Carolina in a better situation than some others teams that have lost a starter.
Ellis is an interesting case. He's had success in the past, but has always struggled to maintain it. This will be his first chance in Carolina, and he deserves a chance to show what he can do.
That puts the onus on Rutherford to shore up the group in front of him. With the 'Canes allowing 31.4 shots per game (fifth-most in the league), the belief is that Carolina's GM was looking for a steady, stay-at-home defender before Ward was injured. This should speed up his search. Will that be enough to keep the 'Canes in contention? If Ellis struggles early, look for Rutherford to make another move. He has too much invested in this season to let it slip away.