Ward touted for Team Canada

MIKE ZEISBERGER

, Last Updated: 5:44 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Sorry Martin Brodeur. You too, Roberto Luongo.

In the totally biased opinion of Eric Staal, you two -- or any other goaltenders selected by general manager Steve Yzerman to represent Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver -- should take a back seat to Cam Ward.

"I think he should be the starting goalie." Staal confidently proclaimed yesterday of his Carolina Hurricane teammate, who has been one of the stars of these 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs.

While not as brash as Joe Namath's controversial guarantee prior to Super Bowl III that his underdog New York Jets would upset the heavily favoured Baltimore Colts, Staal's statement, at least on the surface, seems pretty bold.

But maybe not as much as you might initially think.

Don't take our word for it, though. We'll let Staal explain the method to his madness.

And, listening closely to the eldest Staal brother talk, there is more to this than just sucking up to a teammate. Much more.

According to Staal, the pro-Ward arguments are there for all to see.

Like the fact that, as a rookie, he backstopped the Canes to a Stanley Cup in 2006.

Like the fact he was named the winner of the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP that same year.

Like the fact that he helped Canada win gold at the 2007 World Hockey Championship in Moscow.

And, last but not least, like the fact that Ward has won four consecutive Game 7's in Stanley Cup playoff competition.

If that resume does not indicate a guy who thrives on the pressure of The Big Game, Staal does not know what does.

"For me, there is no question there is a comfort level whenever I'm out on the ice knowing he's back there," Staal, 24, said. "I know he gets the job done. He always has since we've been together."

Entering tonight's opening game of the Eastern Conference final between the Canes and Pittsburgh Penguins at the Mellon Arena, perhaps Ward's most impressive accomplishment is the way he has risen to the occasion whenever the Stanley Cup spotlight has shone on his broad shoulders.

During the Canes' Cup run three years ago, Ward guided Carolina to a huge win over the Buffalo Sabres in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. If that wasn't flashy enough, he repeated the feat in the seventh and deciding game of the final against the Edmonton Oilers, earning him the opportunity to sip out of hockey's Holy Grail.

Fast forward to this year's Stanley Cup dance, where Ward's display of seventh heaven has continued.

In the first round, his Canes upset Brodeur's New Jersey Devils in Game 7, thanks to a pair of late goals in the final two minutes against the game's all-time winningest goaltender.

Next came an overtime victory over the Boston Bruins Thursday, another Game 7 masterpiece that propelled the Canes to this Showdown in Steeltown.

Four consecutive series. Four consecutive Game 7 victories.

So, what's his secret?

"It just goes back to the mental makeup of a goalie," Ward, 25, said. "The biggest reason I became a goalie is to handle pressure situations like that."

Ward was born in Saskatoon and spent much of his youth in the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park. But it wasn't until he was about 12-years-old, playing youth hockey in Winnipeg, that he decided to strap on the pads.

"Those were the days -- playing half a season in goal, half the season out. I wish I could do that here. I face enough shots during the season. I'd love the chance to take a few of my own."

That's not about to happen. Not in the Eastern Conference final. And certainly not in Vancouver in nine months.

According to Eric Staal, Cam Ward has much more important issues to deal with on both those instances.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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