Meaningless is too strong a word to describe the Blackhawks’ last few games. The playoffs are out of the question, but there’s still significance for at least some of the players.
Cam Ward does not take these precious opportunities for granted. It’s his 14th season, possibly his last, and beating the Blues in a shootout Wednesday was something that will stay with him if this is the end.
“Once the season’s over, we’ll think about the future, but it does sink in that [it] could be my last home game,” Ward said. “I’ve got my family and kids here to watch the game, and I wanted to be in a good mood after the game. . . . It wasn’t pretty at times, but we competed, and it’s nice to be able to walk away with the win.”
Ward hadn’t played in a month but stopped 37 of 40 shots in regulation and overtime, then shut down all three Blues skaters in the shootout. He has endured some rough nights playing behind one of the worst defenses in the NHL, but he also has enjoyed a few beauties along the way.
He was instrumental in the Hawks turning their season around in December and came through with a 30-for-31 performance to beat the Predators, followed by saving 26 of 28 shots for a landmark win in Dallas.
Ward’s steadiness despite the inconsistent playing time — he signed on to be Corey Crawford’s backup but also sat behind rookie Collin Delia — endeared him to coach Jeremy Colliton. It’s part of what earned him the Winter Classic start despite Delia being red-hot at the time.
“He’s a great teammate,” Colliton said. “True pro.”
Ward was nothing but supportive while on the bench, never chirped about wanting more starts and was ready to jump in anytime. That last part isn’t easy for a goalie. Rhythm is essential, and it’s hard to get it without playing regularly.
He got the chance to be the every-day starter for a stretch when he wrested the job from Delia in January and gave the Hawks a tremendous five-game run. He put up a .943 save percentage and allowed only 11 goals, spurring the winning streak that got the team back in the mix for a wild-card spot.
Those were great games for Ward, reminding everyone that he still can get it done at 35. But the moments have been great, too.
He longed to join a storied franchise and play with greats such as Patrick Kane — “He just amazes you,” Ward said — and Jonathan Toews. He won the Stanley Cup, as well as the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs, with the Hurricanes as a rookie in 2005-06. He didn’t rediscover that thrill as he had hoped, but the culture was exactly what he expected.
“Just to be able to put on the Blackhawks jersey is something special, knowing the rich history,” Ward said. “I’ve had an unbelievable experience.”
He got a special taste of Hawks lore Wednesday, when the team honored Hall of Famer Tony Esposito. Ward met with him in the morning, and they lined up next to each other for the national anthem.
“You realize that you’re standing beside a legend,” he said. “It’s a moment that I’ll always remember.”
Ward likely will get one more start, Friday against the Stars or Saturday at the Predators. And nothing about it will be meaningless.