Cam Ward makes 40 saves as Hurricanes storm Thrashers 5-2

Then there was Kari Lehtonen, who had trouble stopping anything. Talk about a contrast in the nets. Ward made 40 saves for Carolina, while Lehtonen was yanked in the second period of the Hurricanes’ 5-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Wednesday night. The Atlanta goalie stopped only nine of 13 shots.

Carolina managed to win rather easily despite getting outshot 42-18. Ray Whitney and Rod Brind’Amour scored two goals apiece, but the unquestioned star was in goal.

“Cam made some really tough saves,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “A lot of them seemed headed for the net, but all sudden there was a toe, a pad, a shoulder to get in the way. He was extremely sharp, extremely focused.”

Whitney’s second goal gave Carolina a 4-1 lead and prompted Thrashers coach Bob Hartley to yank Lehtonen with 4:51 left in the second period.

“This game was definitely played in the nets,” Hartley said. “Cam Ward was the best player on the ice.”

Johan Hedberg went the rest of the way in the Atlanta nets and was barely tested, facing just four shots while Ward was sprawling all over the ice at the other end.

“When you make some saves, especially early, it always helps,” said Ward, the unlikely star of Carolina’s run to the Stanley Cup championship last season. “I knew I had to get better at stopping the first five shots so we wouldn’t get down early. I felt relaxed. I felt calm. Anytime you feel like that, you know it’s going to be a good night.”

Ward blocked the first five and just kept right on going.

Marian Hossa picked up his NHL-leading 11th goal and 500th career point on a power play but could have a much bigger game if not for Ward. Atlanta’s top scorer had a career-high 16 shots on goal – nearly as many as the Hurricanes’ entire team and six more than his previous best.

Ilya Kovalchuk redirected a shot from the point early in the third, but Ward still managed to smother it, prompting Kovalchuk to look toward the roof in disgust.

The Thrashers went 1-for-10 on the power play, failing to convert a lengthy two-man advantage late in the second.

“The power play was playing like five individuals and not a five-man unit,” Atlanta’s Greg de Vries said.

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Carolina has won all three meetings between the Southeast Division rivals this season. The first two were much closer, with Carolina winning 4-3 on a goal in the last second of regulation, then prevailing 5-4 in overtime.

This time, the Hurricanes didn’t need a dramatic goal at the end. Their top line of Whitney, Brind’Amour and Erik Cole was especially dominant, accounting for all but one of the goals.

Carolina is starting to play like a champion, picking up six wins and an overtime loss in its last nine games after getting off to an 0-3-1 start.

Whitney and Scott Walker scored 40 seconds apart in the first period. After Hossa pulled the Thrashers within a goal at 3:58 of the second, Brind’Amour and Whitney gave the Hurricanes a commanding lead.

During a delayed penalty against Atlanta, Cole worked hard to keep the puck in behind the net, then Whitney picked it up and whipped a pass to Brind’Amour in front. He fired a shot into the top right corner over Lehtonen’s glove.

Then, after Carolina killed off a penalty, Whitney cut in front of the net and ripped a low shot that got by Lehtonen’s right skate. That was it for Atlanta’s starting goalie, who took a seat at the end of the bench.

“That’s just the way it sometimes goes,” Lehtonen said. “I didn’t think they were good shots. They shouldn’t have gone in.”

Vitaly Vishnevski gave Atlanta a faint hope, scoring a backhander that deflected off a Carolina player’s stick with 12 1/2 minutes left. But Brind’Amour scored an empty-netter with 1:26 remaining.

Notes: Atlanta has lost two straight games in regulation for the first time this season. … Eight of Hossa’s 11 goals have come on the power play. … Thrashers D Niclas Havelid and Carolina D Tim Gleason both sat out their first game of the season. … Atlanta got chippy in the final minute. Scott Mellanby received a 10-minute misconduct, then J.P. Vigier of the Thrashers and Carolina’s Craig Adams got into a brief fight along the boards before the linesmen jumped in quickly to keep things from spiraling out of control.