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Rookie goalie Ward on verge of making history

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Hockey goalies have always been a
rather unusual lot, willingly putting their bodies in front of
pucks traveling close to 100 mph while subjecting those around them
to all sorts of quirks, idiosyncrasies and superstitions.

Glenn Hall threw up before every game. Gilles Gratton believed
he was reincarnated from a soldier killed in the Spanish
Inquisition. Patrick Roy talked to the goalposts.

Then there's Cam Ward.

This guy seems ... shall we say it? Ordinary.

"Everybody talks about goalies being different, being weird,"
said Glen Wesley, a teammate of Ward's with the Carolina
Hurricanes. "But Cam is about as normal as they come."

Well, not exactly.

It's hardly run-of-the-mill for a rookie goaltender to take on a
starring role in the Stanley Cup finals. In fact, only two in the
last 35 years have led their teams to the NHL title -- Ken Dryden in
1971 and Roy in '86, both with the Montreal Canadiens.

Ward could join that exclusive club with two more wins. The
Hurricanes are up 2-0 on the Edmonton Oilers heading to Game 3
Saturday night, and a big chunk of credit goes to this unflappable
kid wearing the pads, catching mitt and mask.

Just 22 and a backup most of the season, Ward bailed out
Carolina in its opening-round series against Montreal when Martin
Gerber struggled. Sensing that he might have the next Dryden or Roy
on his hands, Carolina coach Peter Laviolette stuck with the hot
hand.

Ward outplayed New Jersey's Martin Brodeur -- a childhood hero --
during the second round, and led the Hurricanes to a thrilling
seven-game win over Buffalo for the Eastern Conference
championship. He hasn't let up against Edmonton, baling out the
Hurricanes with several huge saves after they fell behind 3-0 in
the opener, then becoming the first rookie since Roy -- there's that
name again -- to post a finals shutout with a 5-0 win in Game 2.

Now, Ward is back in his hometown, getting ready to play in the
arena where he used to cheer on the Oilers from Section 102.
"I'm extremely excited," Ward said, though it sure was hard to
tell from the dispassionate tone of his voice. "You're up in the
stands watching the Oilers, thinking what it would be like someday
to have the opportunity to play on the ice, let alone the Stanley
Cup finals. It put a smile on my face."

The Oilers are hoping that being in Edmonton -- surrounded by
family, friends and perhaps some distractions -- will cause Ward to
stumble just a bit on his way to hockey history.

"That's going to be tough for him," Edmonton's Ethan Moreau
said. "He's a young guy who's back at home. I think we can get to
him."
Maybe so, but Ward shows no signs of being overwhelmed by the
pressure. In fact, he seemed comforted by his surroundings,
chatting leisurely with his father, mother and sister in the
hallway beneath Rexall Place after the Hurricanes wrapped up their
practice.

The whole family is living in the moment, a salt-of-the-earth
clan that provided Ward with all the tools he needed to succeed at
such a young age.

"We've never been ones to stereotype," said the goalie's
father, Ken Ward, whose company has season tickets to the Oilers.
"What was valid for the masses was never appropriate for our
children. We wanted them to make their own way in life."

Cam Ward is surely taking a path less traveled.

Experience is a valued trait for the last line of defense,
especially when the excruciating pressure of the Stanley Cup
playoffs rolls around. In general, goalies are thought to hit their
prime later than most players, usually in their late 20s and early
30s.

There have been exceptions, though.

Dryden had played in only six regular-season games when
Canadiens turned to him for the '71 playoffs, hoping he could
solidify their shaky goaltending. He led Montreal to an upset of
heavily favored Boston in the opening round and was still in the
nets when the Canadiens rallied for a seven-game win over Chicago
in the finals. The thoughtful, well-educated Dryden would go on to
etch his name on the cup five more times.

Roy had not yet turned 21 when he backstopped the Canadiens to
the '86 championship, the first of four Stanley Cup titles "St.
Patrick" captured during a brilliant career that should earn him a
spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame before the month is out.

How does Ward compare to last two rookie goalies to win the cup?

Dryden had less regular-season experience than Ward before the
'71 playoffs but was a year-and-half older and probably a bit more
seasoned after an All-American career at Cornell, followed by one
full season and part of another in the minors.

Roy was 16 months younger than Ward during his first trip to the
playoffs, but he was hardly a surprise choice to start in goal for
the Canadiens after playing 45 games during the regular season.

Ward spent the lockout season with Carolina's American Hockey
League team, then moved up to serve as Gerber's backup once the
labor dispute was settled. The rookie played in 28 games but didn't
put up eye-catching numbers, going 14-8 with a very ordinary 3.68
goals-against average.

Still, the Hurricanes got a glimpse of Ward's calm demeanor when
Gerber sustained a hip injury in the season opener against
defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay.

Ward stopped 10 of 11 shots in his NHL debut (though Carolina
lost 5-2), and he was back in the nets for the home opener against
Pittsburgh. The game went to a shootout, and Ward turned aside
Mario Lemieux, Zigmund Palffy and Sidney Crosby to give the
Hurricanes a 3-2 win.

"You could see it right there," Wesley recalled. "We knew if
we needed him, he would be ready."

When the playoffs rolled around, Ward was needed.

He was ready.