Eddie Lack and Cam Ward (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Cam Ward has been sidelined for the past 10 days with a concussion but was activated late Tuesday. His activation comes just as Eddie Lack seems to be heating up, though, and Carolina will have a tough choice to make in their push for the post-season.
The Carolina Hurricanes, once as many as eight points out of a post-season spot, are now just one point back of the final wild-card position in the Eastern Conference. They moved closer to earning themselves a playoff position thanks to a dominating performance against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks Tuesday in a contest in which Eddie Lack posted a shutout for the second time in four games.
And as promising as January was for the Hurricanes, and their 7-3-3 record over the past month is a step in the right direction, it may have been moreso for Lack. The 28-year-old has struggled for most of the season, but he has won three of his past five games, allowed only 12 goals over that span and has improved what was once an ugly .887 save percentage at the end of December to a .904 SP as teams break off for all-star weekend.
Lack’s uptick in play came at exactly the right time, too, as starting goaltender Cam Ward has been sidelined since Jan. 16 with a concussion. But Ward is back now. The Hurricanes activated the 31-year-old goaltender late Tuesday and sent netminder Daniel Altshuller to the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. Even with Ward back, though, it’s hard not to feel that now is the time for Carolina to put their hopes in Lack.
For Hurricanes fans, that’s a scary proposition. Ward has been the better goaltender for much of the season, and Lack hasn’t performed at near the level Carolina had hoped when they flipped third- and seventh-round picks to Vancouver to nab the Swedish netminder. However, Lack is showing signs of being the goaltender GM Ron Francis was looking for. On top of that, there’s a case to be made that regardless of if it’s Ward or Lack between the pipes the Hurricanes will have to attempt to make the playoffs this season in spite of the play of their goaltenders.
Heading into the all-star break, the Hurricanes have the league’s fourth-worst 5-on-5 save percentage at a rocky .915. Uglier yet is their play at all strengths where they’ve posted a .902 SP. That’s not the type of goaltending that wins games — at least, not consistently.
Amazingly, though, the Hurricanes are in the midst of a playoff race thanks to their smothering defense and a 52.4 shot attempts for percentage at 5-on-5, sixth-best in the NHL. That the Hurricanes are even in the post-season race is a near miracle given their goaltending, but it’s more understandable given that type of possession play. If Hurricanes fans are being realistic, though, they know this season’s not likely to end with Eric Staal being handed the Stanley Cup. That’s not just because Staal is a potential trade chip at the deadline, though he most certainly is.
The realistic outlook on things is why it’s time to give the reins to Lack. This season isn’t Stanley Cup-or-bust in Carolina and Lack has two more years at $2.75-million per season remaining once this campaign concludes. He’s not necessarily the goaltender of the future — that title likely belongs to Alex Nedeljkovic, the Team USA standout from the 2016 world juniors — but Lack’s track record is stronger than Ward’s over the past few seasons. And there’s really no downfall to running Lack for the majority of what’s left of the campaign.
If Lack’s starting to finally get comfortable in Carolina, then maybe he heats up further and boosts the Hurricanes into the post-season. And if he stumbles down the stretch and he’s very clearly the reason Carolina isn’t playoff bound? Then Francis knows he might need to go out and find another goalie to platoon with Lack, whether that’s Ward or otherwise. But sitting Lack down means Francis’ questions about Lack’s ability are marred by his brutal start and leaves Francis without a fuller picture of what Lack can do.
It’s goaltending the Hurricanes need and Lack hasn’t been that yet. Could he become the Hurricanes starter? Absolutely. But if the Hurricanes miss the post-season and Lack watches the majority of those games from the bench, Carolina is going to have to wonder if Lack can get the job done at all rather than having an idea of what his role can be down the road.
(All advanced statistics via Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com)