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Top Shelf: Old new Canes crank it up

Cam Ward makes a save against the Atlanta Thrashers. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Cam Ward makes a save against the Atlanta Thrashers. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tales of the Bermuda Triangle deliver shivers with their eerie theme of strange disappearances. Right now, a little northwest of there, another Triangle is defined by stirring reappearances.

The Carolina Hurricanes are treating North Carolina’s Triangle region to some terrific hockey right now. That should have fans and barbeques fired up for a potential playoff run because, after all, when the Canes get in the East’s top eight, they tend to get a little greedy.

The last playoff game Carolina played ended with it hoisting the Stanley Cup. That was in 2006, four years after the mobile Hall of Fame known as the ’02 Red Wings defeated the Canes in the Cup final.

Carolina then missed the playoffs in both seasons preceding the lockout, just as they’ve fallen short of the post-season both years since knocking off Edmonton for the ’06 Cup.

Talk about boom-or-bust in pursuit of silver.

I, as one of many, had Carolina missing out on this year’s spring dance, based on their inconsistency, defense corps and willingness to pay Sergei Samsonov in exchange for him playing hockey.

But it’s getting increasingly harder to deny this freaky back-in-the-family mojo going on.

Erik Cole has one goal and six points in three games since returning from exile in Edmonton. Matt Cullen, in his second year back with the Canes after a one-year fling with the Rangers, has seven points in his past four games. All this makes life easier on Paul Maurice, who, of course, is in his second tour of duty as coach of this team.

While the happy returns make for a nice, neat storyline, the real gale force behind the Hurricanes’ surge is goalie Cam Ward. You remember him, the guy who went out and won the Conn Smythe, then essentially lost all consistency.

Ward has been up and down again this year, but he’s on his game right now to the tune of winning his past four starts and posting a 1.50 goals-against average and .948 save percentage over that stretch.

Now, the fastest route to a padded cell is trying to figure out how the guy who wears the most padding on your team will perform on a given night. Ward’s work over the last few years is basically a microcosm of his position as a whole. Look around the league this year and you’ll see guys like Dan Ellis, Mathieu Garon and Vesa Toskala who had their teams feeling great about their goaltending prior to the season.

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Five short months later, those good vibrations have been seriously unsettled. Garon doesn’t even play for the same squad.

Imagine, then, being Carolina GM Jim Rutherford. A former goalie himself, Rutherford watched Cam Ward take playoff MVP honors as a 22-year-old rookie. That’s the stuff of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy.

But also Ron Hextall. And in the aftermath of that monumental achievement, Ward has shown flashes of his top form, but failed to bottle it.

Given he’s still a relatively young 25, there’s every chance he will still smooth things out. If this is the start of that process, Carolina has to like its odds of excelling.

And if by chance Eric Staal is going to keep playing like a star, as he has been since being reunited with Cole, well, that would lend legitimacy to even the most optimistic fan’s daydreams.

Regardless of whether it ends with a ‘c’ or ‘k,’ Eric and Erik together spells success.

It’s certainly fair play to fire some question marks at the Canes’ stable of defensemen. But while Dennis Seidenberg will never be mistaken for Denis Potvin, he, along with Joe Corvo and Joni Pitkanen, is helping keep things in pretty fine order on the back end.

Carolina has already won one championship with an underwhelming defense corps and this year’s group, like the ’06 crew, is getting it done by committee.

That’s just one more example of how things really seem to be coming full circle in The Triangle.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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