The year is 2013 and the hockey season is just barely underway. The Carolina Hurricanes, who have been trying to find a solution to their seemingly endless backup goaltending issues, went out and signed Anton Khudobin as a free agent to form a 1A/1B tandem with incumbent starter Cam Ward. The team went 2-1-2 out of the gate and then Khudobin would get injured in a event that is still featured in weird injury highlight reels everywhere.
But all will be okay, right? Ward can handle the load, and the team will recall their prospect goalie Justin Peters who had NHL experience as a backup from the previous year.
Fast forward just twelve days to October 24th against the Minnesota Wild. Ward is in goal and the team is now 4-2-3 while off to one of their best October months in the past decade. Then disaster struck.
Ward stretched out to make a save and was in obvious discomfort. Around 15 seconds played out before a whistle was blown and Ward headed straight for the locker room. He would miss the next month.
Off the bench came Justin Peters who would go on to lose that game against Minnesota. After the loss head coach Kirk Muller said of Peters, “This is his opportunity, and he’s got to find a way to get the job done.” Mike Murphy, the team’s fourth string goalie, was recalled to be the back up.
At this point the Hurricanes were so desperate they signed Rick DiPietro to a professional tryout contract in hopes that he could somehow save them. DiPietro would never see Raleigh however, as he bombed his opportunity in Charlotte. So the team was left with Peters in net until Ward could return.
While Ward was not exactly lighting up the league when he went down, at just 2-2-3 and posting a 2.81 goals against average with a .912 save percentage, he could hopefully have kept the Hurricanes alive until Khudobin returned with Peters coming in here and there in a back up role. Peters, on the other hand, had no NHL starter background, and would be forced to start the next nine games — which would prove bumpy at best.
It started off with a five game losing streak and then turned in to a five game point streak. But ultimately that five game losing streak was looked back at later in the season as a defining moment as to why the Canes had too much ground to make up. The Canes would end the season with Khudobin taking over the starter’s reins in January and pulling the team within a shout of a playoff spot, only to end up 10 points out after a rough final week.
So what would have happened if Cam Ward had not gotten hurt that October night in St. Paul?
While one would love to sit here and say Ward would have provided the team with a veteran presence and the five game losing streak would have never occurred, it’s hard to believe that. Was having Ward in net over a shaky Justin Peters a better option? Of course it was. But the way Ward was playing he may have only won the team two to three of those games at best and he may not have been able to put together the five game point streak Peters did.
But let’s say he did win three of those games that Peters lost and still managed the five game point streak too. That would give the Canes, at best, six more points leaving them with 89 on the year — still four points out of a playoff spot. None of the teams they played during those five games were in the hunt for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference so who they beat would be irrelevant.
Now, is it possible that the team, being six points closer, tries harder down the stretch? It's possible, but it just seems hard to pinpoint that stretch where Ward was out as the reason why the team missed the playoffs that year. So ultimately, even in a alternate universe where Cam doesn’t get hurt, the team still fails to make the playoffs.
The more interesting side to this story to me is what would have happened had Khudobin never gotten hurt? That’s the scenario where I think there’s more of a chance for the Hurricanes making the playoffs. After all, Khudobin went 19-14-1 with a 2.30 GAA and .926 save percentage that year compared to Ward’s 10-12-6 with a 3.06 GAA and .898 save percentage. Khudobin was on fire after he returned and that stretch during early 2014 is the only real time (outside of last October with Scott Darling) since 2007 where Cam Ward was not the true starter for the Hurricanes.
Then there is one more side to this story to consider. Justin Peters was highly regarded in the Hurricanes system for a long time. He worked his way up and was Ward’s backup starting in 2011-2012. From there he was sent back to the minors in favor of more established goalies such as Dan Ellis and Khudobin. But yet, every year, he found his way back to Raleigh, becoming the original Peters that Canes fans directed their frustrations toward.
After being thrust into action when Ward went down, and his subsequent five-game losing streak, many fans wanted Peters as far away from the organization as possible. He would end the year as a healthy scratch for the Canes and went on to sign with Washington the following off season. A prospect goalie with so much potential at one point walked away for nothing in return and the Canes have never found a true developmental replacement as a backup. Had those five games gone different could he have stayed a Hurricane and proven himself as a true backup to Ward?
So what do you think? Did Justin Peters being thrown in to the wolves and losing five straight games cost the Canes their season? Would Ward being healthy have changed their fate?