Cam Ward keeping Hurricanes in playoff hunt as Scott Darling struggles

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It seemed simple enough for the Carolina Hurricanes after last season: Find a goaltender and the upward climb should finally begin with the young talent on the roster.

So when general manager Ron Francis traded for Scott Darling’s rights and signed him a four-year deal, it seemed like a problem solved. Darling did an admirable job backing up Corey Crawford with the Chicago Blackhawks and now was his opportunity to take the reins as a regular NHL No. 1 goalie.

Boy, it hasn’t gone well at all.

Darling is currently sporting a .896 even strength save percentage and was in net for all eight goals during last Tuesday’s drubbing at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (How soon until head coach gives him the Eddie Lack treatment?)

“It’s been kind of an up-and-down season for me,” Darling told Ken Campbell of The Hockey News after the loss. “Great game, not-so-great game. I can’t really put my (finger) on it. It’s still just goaltending, right? So I don’t really know why I’m having consistency issues. Maybe it’s just the adjustment to a new team, new city, new everything. My whole life is different now, so I’m sure all that stuff factors into it.”

In fact, it’s gone so poorly for Darling and the Hurricanes that Cam Ward, whose play the last few years led to Francis making the trade, has the job again while helping Carolina win his last four starts.

“I’m just enjoying it. You have a newfound appreciation for the game when you see you’re not playing as much and try to take advantage of the opportunities that you’re given,” he said after Saturday’s win over the Buffalo Sabres.

We’ll see how long this Ward renaissance lasts, but the end game is to get Darling right because he’s signed through the 2020-21 season at a $4.15 million cap hit. The Hurricanes need that to happen because as Adam Gretz noted earlier this month they’ve finished 18th, 28th, 29th and 26th in team save percentage over the last four seasons. Many have been expecting this team to finally turn the corner and be on the rise, but their production from between the pipes has really been holding them back.

Plus, besides there being a lack of quality options on the market, there’s plenty of competition around the league is trying to shore up their goaltending. The Pittsburgh Penguins would like to add someone. Maybe Garth Snow is close to fully losing his patience with Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss. Plenty want to buy but the goods just aren’t available at the moment.

If Ward, who will start Wednesday vs. Montreal, comes back down to earth, and it’s likely to happen sooner rather than later, Darling’s play needs to match up with the expectations laid upon him after the Hurricanes made the deal. It’s a tight squeeze in the Metropolitan Division and Carolina is currently sitting three points out of a wild card spot (thanks, loser point!).

Losing out on extra points due to goaltending isn’t an ideal plan, so whether it’s Ward or Darling for the long-run here, that position can’t sink the Hurricanes once again.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.