Ellis must step up in goalie Ward’s absence

For a goalie of Cam Ward’s stature, there have been some uncomfortable moments this season.

Mostly, they have come in terms of Ward’s having to fight for his starts — something the 29-year-old has not had to do since his rookie season of 2005-06, when he ultimately led the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in the process.

Coach Kirk Muller, who, assuredly, has a strong mandate from management, has not allowed Ward to start games by default, as he might have in the past. This season, Ward’s eighth, has proved a rarity in that his back-up Dan Ellis frankly has outplayed him to this point.

Now, with the announcement by the Hurricanes on Monday that Ward will miss the next six to eight weeks — possibly the remainder of the regular season — with a third-degree sprain of his MCL in his left knee, that point is moot.

The task of keeping the ‘Canes on top in the Southeast Division now falls to Ellis, but this time as a No. 1, which is an entirely different dynamic, with different pressures associated with it.

Trading for a goalie does not seem to be much of an option. Ottawa, in direct competition with Carolina for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, already lost No. 1 Craig Anderson. Florida’s No. 1, Jose Theodore, could be out for a prolonged period. There’s not much supply and plenty of teams are within striking distance of the playoffs.

To his credit, Ellis has been a No. 1 before, and he’s playing like it again this season. However, it has been a few years since he has done so. Much of the Canes’ hopes now rest on whether he is up to the task.

With a little more than half of the season left, the Hurricanes entered Monday with 25 points, four ahead of Winnipeg and six over Tampa Bay. All three teams have played 21 games.

If the Canes stumble, nothing is guaranteed. Even Washington, currently eight points back and tied for last in the division, seemingly has a chance to catch them.

Ironically, Ellis was scheduled to start on Sunday at Florida but did not because of illness. That set the stage for a freak accident in the second period when Canes defenseman Joe Corvo, after knocking Florida forward Jack Skille to the ice, slid into Ward. A few minutes later, Ward had to leave the game when he attempted to push off with the injured knee and it gave out.

Perhaps because of the small, nontraditional market he plays in, Ward is one of the game’s most underrated goalies. In 2010-11, his 37 wins ranked second in the NHL — only one behind league-leader Roberto Luongo of Vancouver — yet the Canes failed to qualify for the playoffs, which might have diminished an otherwise great season in the eyes of voters for the Vezina Trophy (top goalie).

That season, Ward’s 2,191 saves were the most in the league, more than 200 more than the next highest goalie. He also led the league in games played (74) and minutes (4,318) but was not even a finalist for the award. In 2009, he took his underdog team to the Eastern Conference finals, where the Canes lost to eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh. The resume speaks for itself.

What makes Ward one of the game’s better goalies is his ability to focus and compete. That was on display in a 4-2 win over the New York Islanders on Feb. 24. Ward was not great, as he allowed two goals in the first 12:25 of the first period to the Islanders. Yet from there, he yielded nothing and the Canes rallied to win with four straight goals.

Can Ellis show the same mental toughness? That is the question. In 2007-08, he wrested the No. 1 job in Nashville from Chris Mason and was Nashville’s starter for a six-game playoff loss in the first round against eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit. That season, Ellis set what is still the longest shutout streak in Predators’ history, going from March 22 to March 30, 2008 — 233 minutes 39 seconds — without yielding a goal.

Ellis went 23-10-3 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .924 save percentage, which accounted for career bests in wins and the latter two categories. This season, he is near that form. His .923 save percentage is a good bit higher than Ward’s .908. His GAA of 2.53 also is better than Ward’s, which is 2.84. The difference is that Ward has played almost 600 minutes (10 games) more.

How will Ellis function when he knows that he is not just starting one out of every three games but two or three out of every three? How will we respond to the wear-and-tear of playing so many games in such a short season? He has never played more than the 44 games in a season (both in ’07-’08 and in ’10-’11).

The last couple of times he has been given a chance to be a No. 1, the results were not great.

In 2010-11 for Tampa Bay, he played 31 games before he was traded in late February, registering an .889 save percentage. The last time he had a playoff start — that same 2010-11 season after Anaheim acquired him — Ellis was pulled after 41 minutes in Game 1 against his former Nashville team when he allowed four goals on 24 shots. He did not see any action in the series after that, a six-game loss by his club. The good news for the Cans is that Ellis looks like a different player in 2013.

This is an important season for the Canes, who have not qualified for the postseason in four years. With the trade for Jordan Staal and the signing of forward Alex Semin for just one year at $7 million, the Canes showed that they are “all in,” so to speak. If Ellis falters, maybe, a team like the Canes can pry Evgeni Nabokov from the Islanders before the trading deadline, but Nabokov has not played well.

That means to help the Canes fulfill their postseason dreams, Ellis will have to be equal to the task.