Resurgent Hurricanes, Ward await visit from Canadiens

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes will want to pick up where they left off before the brief holiday break.

They’ll take on the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night at PNC Arena.

The Hurricanes seem to understand the importance of strong starts to games and that might have been magnified across the final week before Christmas. So they’ll be intent on coming out strong after the layoff.

“We’ve been preaching our starts,” Carolina goalie Cam Ward said. “I’ve been real impressed with the last stretch of games and the way we’ve been playing and hopefully we can continue that.”

The Hurricanes, who last played in Saturday night’s victory against Buffalo, went into the break after winning five of their last seven games. They have points in seven of the last nine.

The Canadiens (16-16-4) have been rather stagnant lately, unable to get on a good run but doing enough for them to sense their potential.

“If you make those chances count, it will make a big difference for a hockey club,” Montreal coach Claude Julien said of his team’s inability to convert on scoring opportunities and the frustration that tends to follow.

The Hurricanes have scored a goal in the opening minute in the past two games. That hadn’t happened for the franchise in consecutive games since the team was called the Hartford Whalers back in 1990.

Carolina (16-12-7) has put together its most encouraging stretch of the season. That has come as Ward, who had been tagged for a backup role this season, has emerged as the most reliable goaltender.

“The guys have confidence with whoever is in the net,” Ward said. “I’m just enjoying it. You have a new-found appreciation for the game when you’re maybe not playing as much and take advantage of the opportunities you’re given.”

It figures that Ward will be ready to go again for the Hurricanes. He has picked up victories in his last four outings and he’s 7-0-1 across the past six-plus weeks.

Coach Bill Peters said Ward has earned more opportunities.

“He has been excellent.” Peters said. “He has been good and deserves to play. … His ability to play the puck, he makes good decisions when he plays it.”

The Canadiens will play the fifth game of seven in a row on the road to end the month. They’ve gone 2-2 so far in this stretch.

“We want to get better results,” Montreal right winger Brendan Gallagher said.

The Canadiens played three in a row in western Canada last week. Now it’s a tour of the Southeast, beginning with Carolina before their next two stops in Tampa Bay and Florida.

This will be only the fourth home game this month for the Hurricanes, who hold a four-game winning streak on home ice.

Carolina center Jordan Staal will play in his 800th NHL game Wednesday night.

This is the first of three games between Montreal and Carolina, with all the meetings coming across a span of just barely more than five weeks.