It’s the most famous goalie change in Carolina Hurricanes history. Maybe one of the most famous in NHL history. I’m talking about the switch from veteran starting goalie Martin Gerber to rookie Cam Ward in the first round of the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens, of course.
The Canes, coming off the best regular season in franchise history with 52 wins and 112 points, good for the second seed in the Eastern Conference, were expected to run roughshod over the No. 7 Montreal Canadiens. The team hit its first taste of adversity; however, as Gerber, who it was later revealed was battling a stomach flu, turned into a sieve, allowing 11 total goals over the series’ first two games.
The team turned to Ward part way through game two, and the rest is history. Carolina won four straight to eliminate Montreal, steamrolled the Devils in five games, and won seven-game series against the Sabres and Oilers to capture the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Ward went 15-8 with a .920 save percentage, 2.14 goals against average and two shutouts, earning the Conn Smythe Trophy. Ward treated Canes fans to highlights like THE save against Fernando Pisani in game seven against Edmonton, which Andy spotlighted earlier this week. Head coach Peter Laviolette’s decision to switch goalies ended up being the most important choice in franchise history.
But what if it never happened? What if Gerber stayed healthy for the entire postseason, had been steadier early against Montreal and the Canes had stuck with their starter from the spectacular regular season?
Would Gerber have been capable of finding the higher gear a goalie needs for a deep playoff run?
Looking at Gerber’s numbers, he was solid but unspectacular in the regular season. He compiled a strong 38-14-6 record, but his .906 save percentage and 2.78 goals-against average suggest he was buoyed by the Canes’ prolific offense and lunch pail group of defensemen.
If Gerber stays healthy and continues to provide solid play, the Canes probably still beat Montreal. Maybe they still beat New Jersey too, though it probably takes more than five games. I don’t think the Canes get past a talented (albeit very injured) Sabres team without Ward’s heroics. They squeaked by them with him.
Would Laviolette still have gone to Ward if the team ran into trouble later on? Perhaps, but how would that have affected the team if Lavi went away from the goalie that got them to the conference finals?
So, long story short, a bout of stomach flu led to the Canes’ magical Stanley Cup run. That’s a bit simplistic, but it’s doubtful the Canes win the cup with Gerber between the pipes instead of Ward. It’s fascinating, and one of my favorite things about this alternate history, to see how one thing can change the course of history so dramatically.
Without capturing the ultimate prize to cement themselves among Triangle sports fandom, there’s no telling how not winning the cup would have changed the Canes’ long-term future in Raleigh. Switching goalies in April 2006 truly was the most pivotal choice in franchise history.