PNC ARENA—Kirk Muller is a ruthlessly positive man. If you fell down the stairs, he would shout down at you, “Now you don’t have to dust.”

But after last night’s 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, in which Cam Ward looked below average, Muller sounded like he was trying convince himself about his starting goaltender.

Winnipeg had gone seven games without scoring three goals. Until they faced Cam Ward last night.
  • Photo by Rob Rowe
  • Winnipeg had gone seven games without scoring three goals. Until they faced Cam Ward last night.

“He’s a good pro. I’m sure he’s going to look at a couple of them. It probably feels like he had the opportunity to make a couple more saves there but this is where we are as a group.”

Thanks, coach. But this is his second straight game in which he allowed three goals the third period. Isn’t that a problem?

“I think he was hoping to come back with a big game after the last game in Montreal. But we win as a team and lose as a team and we just didn’t close the door at the end as a group.”

So coach, will we see Dan Ellis in net Saturday night against the Lightning?

“I’ll generally sleep on it tonight and come back tomorrow. It’s a new day. I thought we had a good game tonight. It’s not all down and negative. And we’ve got a big game coming up. So I’ll talk to the coaches and sleep on it tonight and make a decision tomorrow or the following day.”

In the peculiar language of coaches, that’s about as definitive a “yes” as you’re going to get. And truthfully, the Canes are still in first place in their division even after these losses.

But they’re fragile. Eric Staal’s frustration boiled over at the end of the game and he took a game misconduct penalty. The locker room afterwards was silent. Only 2011 first-rounder Ryan Murphy, who played 24 quality minutes in his NHL debut spoke at length. Jiri Tlusty and Justin Faulk made curt appearances. Then they cleared the locker room.

Ward never talks to the media after games. It’s hard to get a sense of him at this point in his career, seven years removed from a dazzling rookie run that ended with a Stanley Cup win and a Conn Smythe trophy.

Seven years is a long time ago. Is Ward still an elite goalie?

Let’s look at the four goals that Ward allowed last night:

1. Just 1:53 into the game, Blake Wheeler cruises down the right wing. Ward drifts to his left, awaiting the shot. But he’s off his angle, leaving a wedge of the goal visible behind him. Wheeler has the time to aim his wrister from the top of the circle, a long range shot that really wasn’t a shot. You don’t score from there. But you may generate a rebound in the slot for teammate Andrew Ladd, who was coming in on the weak side of the play.

Instead, Ward’s reaction is a beat slow and the puck bangs in off the far post. Wheeler’s pass becomes the first shot, and first goal, of the game.

2. The third period has just begun and the game’s tied 1-1 after Alexander Semin twirled to feed a brilliant backhand pass to Tlusty at the end of the first. Battling against the flow of the play to try to corral a puck sitting above the right circle, Nik Antropov trips Tim Wallace but there’s no call. Antropov moves the puck to Evander Kane in the low circle. Kane flings the puck at the net from behind the faceoff dot—a bad angle to be sure—but Ward’s nowhere near the post. The puck zings between Ward and post, right past his glove, and in.

3. After the last goal, Jordan Staal almost immediately tied the game, and the balance of the third period has been a gritty 2-2 tie that seems destined for overtime. But with six minutes left, the Canes unnecessarily ice the puck and have a faceoff in their zone. Staal wins it straight back to Ward, who seems startled by the puck.

He mishandles it with his glove and it bounces into the crease. He takes a swipe at it with his stick but only grazes the puck. And Ladd—celebrating his 500th game since the Canes drafted him fourth overall in 2004—hammers it home a hair wide of Ward’s toe. True, the play happened in a blink, but Ladd moved at the speed of a blink. Ward didn’t.

Ladd’s score marks the first time in seven games that the Jets have managed three goals in a game. Not a juggernaut.

4. Caniacs haven’t sat down yet, celebrating another Tlusty goal to tie it just 47 seconds after Ladd gave Winnipeg the lead. But it takes the Jets just 16 seconds to restore their lead. After play carried to Winnipeg’s end after the center-ice faceoff, Ladd reversed the puck and threw an aerial pass up the center of the ice that fluttered through the air—likely meant as a soft clear that wouldn’t make icing rather than a pass.

But Joe Corvo awkwardly leapt at his own blueline, batting at the puck with his glove as he fell. The puck tumbled to Wheeler on a breakaway, and he beat Ward’s glove easily to provide the winning margin in the game.

Like on the third goal, the play turned from nothing into a scoring chance in an instant. But Ward hardly moved, kicking his left pad a bit to try to make a standup save rather than going down to slide across to Wheeler’s side.

Cam Ward’s calmness is celebrated. He’d found his game during Carolina’s 5-0-1 streak, making play look much easier than it was. But in the two losses that have followed, that calmness has been slowness. All four goals might have been stoppable with a bit faster twitch of those fast-twitch muscles, or a bit more intensity from Ward.

The timestamps of these third-period goals allowed in Montreal and at home against Winnipeg are disconcertingly identical.

In Montreal: Prust at 2:06, Plekanec at 12:03, Pacioretty at 12:21.

Versus Winnipeg: Kane at 2:10, Ladd at 14:03, Wheeler at 15:06.

One at the two-minute mark and a couple quickies late. The message: Ward’s vulnerable, especially his glove.

There are some mitigating factors, of course. With Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen, and Jamie McBain on the shelf with injuries, the Carolina blueline is basically the Charlotte Checkers at this moment. Bobby Sanguinetti and Michal Jordan formed a cringing pair on this night. Murphy was terrific, considering. Jay Harrison and Joe Corvo did their jobs with occasional mistakes. Faulk is Carolina’s best defender even with everyone healthy.

Also, there’s no depth scoring. With Jeff Skinner out indefinitely with a concussion, the top line has to do everything. They summoned a pair by Tlusty, and Jordan Staal banged home a slot rebound to add a third goal, but anything at all from the third and fourth lines would be appreciated.

Drayson Bowman has one assist in 15 games. That’s Andreas Nodl’s season line, too, in seven games. Tim Brent’s played 13 games and has two assists to show for it. If each of these guys has a goal or two at this point in the season, the Canes have a couple more wins in the standings.

But goaltending makes up for all of this. We’ll see who gets to try to turn the tide Saturday.