On Hockey

Focus may go from 'Z' to 'A'

By Kevin Paul Dupont
May 3, 2009
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Is something wicked coming Aaron Ward's way? Maybe. Most likely. After all, nothing else really worked for the Hurricanes Friday night, so why not try to load up on the 36-year-old veteran in Boston's back end, the guy with No. 44 on his back and more miles logged than a junkyard Rambler?

Think about it. As a forward on the attack, would you want to drive straight into Zdeno Chara's kitchen (Boston's version of Hell's Kitchen), or take your chances with Ward, Big Z's shutdown partner, who at 6 feet 2 inches, 209 pounds, happens to be four years older, 7 inches shorter, and some 45 pounds lighter than the monolith who owns all the acreage on the left defensive side?

"It's kind of funny," said Ward, following Boston's tuneup in Wilmington yesterday in preparation for Game 2 tonight in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. "But I've gotten used to seeing teams come out for the next period, and you can tell they're thinking, 'OK, that didn't work, let's try the other guy's side.' You know that's what they've been talking about between periods."

Which is another way of saying that Ward, his name etched into the Stanley Cup three times, is somewhat of the crash dummy in Boston's outstanding A (as in Aaron) to Z (as in Zdeno) shutdown pairing. Opponents grow tired of seeing their forwards race down the right side and disappear into the abyss, often turned back by Chara's long, probing forecheck.

Ultimately, Ward becomes the preferred option, but rarely does "preferred" turn into better.

"Not much mystery to it," said Ward. "Anyone who has watched us play knows, in that situation, you're going to get the puck and get rid of it as soon as you can. And you're either going to get it to your partner or the supporting winger."

Option A, no matter who partners with Chara, is typically to get it to Chara. Whenever he is on the ice, he is Rome, with all roads leading his way. If the Canes try to exploit Ward tonight, toss the puck his way off the rush, Chara will slide over for support and be prepared for the outlet pass. Most of the time, Ward will toss it his way.

No doubt getting Ward to "turn around" will be high on Eric Staal's to-do list tonight, after the slick pivot once again was tied into knots by Chara during Boston's 4-1 victory in Game 1 Friday.

Durable and willing, Ward played a like role with the Red Wings when he got his name on the Cup in 1997 and '98. Three years ago when he won the Cup with Carolina, recalled Ward, it was more of a hybrid role, mixing and matching with the other five defensemen against the other side's varying trios.

"In the big scheme of things," said Ward, "it really doesn't matter who gets credit for what out there, or really what your individual role is - that's the thing to remember if there is a chance to win the Cup.

"No one looks at your name on it and remembers what role you played or how you contributed. It's just that you won it. That's all that matters."

Details matter to the official scorer, however, and yesterday, long after Friday's win, Ward was credited with his first goal of the postseason. It was his shot, a quick wrister with 1:34 gone in the first period, that beat goalie Cam Ward for the 1-0 lead.

The strike originally was credited to Dave Krejci, who was in the slot, but Krejci told Ward soon after the play that he never touched it. The goal should now read: Ward (1), with assists to Michael Ryder and Krejci.

Boston's backliners, including Chara, appear intent on making quick deliveries from the points, rather than teeing up heavy slappers.

"You have to change, or otherwise you are not going to be successful," noted Ward. "In the Montreal series, I don't know what the exact math was, but out of something like 12 shots that I took, 11 got blocked.

"There is so much video now, and teams just tear the tapes apart, looking for tendencies. Everyone pretty much knows who is going to shoot, what they're going to do in every situation. And Carolina does a great job of getting into the lanes and fronting every puck."

The Canes took the day off yesterday to rest their bones and review the tapes. They need to find new ways for their most talented forwards - the likes of Staal, Ray Whitney, Chad LaRose, and Erik Cole - to find roads through Rome. If Route 44 is their choice, Aaron Ward will be ready for that, too.

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