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Ward takes Conn Smythe as Canes win Cup

RALEIGH, N.C. (CP) – It took Carolina Hurricanes captain Rod Brind’Amour 17 years to finally win a Stanley Cup and he knew exactly who to thank afterwards – rookie goaltender Cam Ward.

The unflappable 22-year-old Ward, a year removed from being named to the American Hockey League’s All-Rookie Team, captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as NHL playoff MVP on Monday night after leading the Hurricanes to a 3-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 of the NHL championship series. "Goaltending wins you championships, there’s no mistake about it," said Brind’Amour. "We had the best goalie in the playoffs.

"We got to raise the Cup because of that kid."

The native of Sherwood Park, Alta., is the first rookie goalie since Philadelphia’s Ron Hextall in 1987 to win the Conn Smythe and the first rookie netminder to capture the Cup since Montreal’s Patrick Roy in 1986.

Not bad for a guy who was the backup goalie for most of the season.

"I’d like to say that I’m a better goaltender today than I was at the beginning of the season," he said.

Ward didn’t look like anything like a rookie to his teammates.

His relaxed and poised demeanor throughout the playoffs gave Ward the look of a veteran, not a goalie with only 51 career NHL games under his belt – 28 in the regular season and 23 in the postseason.

"He was just calm and you don’t realize how much confidence that gives a team," said Brind’Amour.

Ward also tied Roy and Hextall’s record for playoff wins by a rookie goalie with 15, one more win than he had in the regular season.

Ward saved his best for the most important game of the season, Monday’s series-clinching game. He made 22 saves, including a jaw-dropping stop on Edmonton’s Fernando Pisani in the third period when the Hurricanes had a one-goal lead.

"He’s come in there and he’s played extremely well for a young kid," said Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette, who becomes the sixth man ever to coach both a Calder Cup and a Stanley Cup champion. "And in his first playoffs, to handle it and respond the way he did and never crack under the pressure, that says a lot about Cam."

Ward knew Game 7 was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

"People say that it’s your rookie season and chances are it’ll come again but you just never know," said Ward. "You can’t predict the future, you just have to take advantage of the present."

Next up, another big night. He gets married July 22.

And who knows, maybe Lord Stanley’s mug will be on hand.

"It would probably make a nice centerpiece," he said with a laugh.

Ward began the playoffs still as the backup but after a flu-ravaged Martin Gerber was lit up by the Montreal Canadiens in the first game and a half of the playoffs, Ward stepped in and closed the door as the Hurricanes rallied from a 2-0 series deficit to survive the first-round scare.

Ward reeled off seven consecutive wins before being pulled in a Game 4 loss to New Jersey in the second round. He returned for Game 5 and allowed only one goal as the Hurricanes eliminated the Devils.

"I can’t say enough about him," said Hurricanes forward Matt Cullen.

The Buffalo Sabres thought they had got to Ward after chasing him from the net in Game 3 and seeing Gerber start Game 4. But Ward got back in net midway through Game 5 and was rock solid the rest of the way as the Hurricanes won the Eastern final in seven games.

He may have kept his best for the Cup final against his childhood team – the Oilers. Ward allowed only 16 goals in seven games, stopping 186 of 202 shots overall for an eye-popping .921 save percentage.

He set the tone in Game 1 with the save of the 2006 playoffs, throwing his body across the crease and robbing Shawn Horcoff of what looked like a sure goal with a miracle glove save with 8:22 left in the third period.

"I started to raise my arms because I was sure it was in," Oilers winger Ryan Smyth, who set up Horcoff, would say the next day.

And that came in one of Ward’s worst games, in which he gave up four goals on 38 shots.

A year ago at this time Ward was hanging out at his parents’ place in Sherwood Park, his AHL season done in the second round of the playoffs. He was just happy to make the Hurricanes in training camp.

Never in his wildest dreams did he envision being the backbone of a Stanley Cup champion eight months after breaking camp on the Carolina roster.

"It’s just dream come true," he said.