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Blackhawks’ Cam Ward gets special reception in Raleigh, his home for 13 seasons

RALEIGH, N.C. — The striking banner hung proud and wide against a concrete wall down the hall from the visitors’ dressing room at PNC Arena — one of the last things Blackhawks goalie Cam Ward would see before he took the ice Monday to face the Hurricanes, his team for 13 seasons.

It featured images of a young Ward making a save, hoisting the Stanley Cup and raising the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the 2006 playoffs. Those images were surrounded by other photos of Ward submitted by fans who’d gotten to meet and pose with him over the years.

Before Ward signed as a free agent with the Hawks on July 1, before he was an All-Star in the NHL, before he’d even established himself as a No. 1 goalie in the league, he became a Stanley Cup hero in Carolina. It happened when — at the age of 22 — he replaced Martin Gerber as the Hurricanes’ starter during the first round of the playoffs and never relinquished the job.

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Cam Ward in goal for the Hurricanes during the 2006 Stanley Cup finals. (AP/Ann Heisenfelt)

Ward was 15-8 with a 2.14 GAA as the Hurricanes won their only Cup. He beat the Oilers 3-1 in Game 7 of the finals at what then was known as the RBC Center.

Now Corey Crawford’s backup, Ward was excited to hear from new Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton that he’d be getting the start in his old stomping grounds.

“It was one I had circled on my calendar that I was hopeful I would be able to play in,” he said before the game. “Who knows how many more times and opportunities I’ll be able to come back into this building?”

Before the Hawks’ 3-2 loss in overtime — a game in which Ward made 40 saves — a video tribute to Ward played during a timeout in the first period. Players from both teams tapped their sticks in approval.

“I think when you come back, you think of all the great memories,” Ward said. “The Stanley Cup was a long time ago, but you’ll never forget where you were on the ice, and who handed [the Cup] to you, and the atmosphere. You feel blessed and fortunate for all the good things that happened here.”

Joy pluck club

A major challenge for Colliton is getting some of the younger players to let loose and remember what got them to the NHL. It’s easier said than done for all involved.

The coach’s message?

“It’s OK to make a mistake,” he said. “We can live with that. And you know what? One might end up in the back of the net. But what we need to build here is, if you play with the right intentions and you work for the team and you play for the team, then you get some rope. Of course, you’ve got to perform, but we want them to play free, and we want them to play with joy. Then it’s easier to be a good player.”

Pain in the . . .

The Hawks were without both Marcus Kruger (left leg) and Brandon Saad (right arm) for the second game in a row. Saad had six points in his last eight games before leaving the ice during Friday’s practice at MB Ice Arena.