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Ward returns, Hurricanes stay in fight with Canadiens for eighth spot in East

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Cam Ward wasn't entirely back in his comfort zone.

Sure, he started in goal for the Carolina Hurricanes for the first time in nearly two weeks and showed little rust in stopping 20 shots. The problem was he had a buzz cut a day earlier when he had his head shaved for charity.

"It was a little bit different," Ward said. "I had a little bit of a breeze going out there."

Ward made the most of his return to the lineup and Andrew Ladd had two goals, helping Carolina beat the San Jose Sharks 6-4 Saturday night.

Ray Whitney, Erik Cole, Eric Staal and Cory Stillman also scored for the Hurricanes, who improved to 5-1-1 in their past seven games as they chase a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Carolina has 84 points and is tied with the Montreal Canadiens for the eighth and final position.

"You'd be stupid not to notice what was going on, but you've got to play to the best of your ability every game," Whitney said. "We put ourselves in this position."

The 23-year-old Ward missed three games with a laceration on his leg, then relieved John Grahame in a come-from-behind victory over Washington on Thursday. Ward, the playoff MVP last year when the Hurricanes captured the Stanley Cup, has wins in two straight outings to improve to 29-17-6 in his first full season as a starter in the NHL.

"The guys showed a lot of composure," Ward said. "That's a very dangerous hockey club over there."

Bill Guerin, Jonathan Cheechoo, Steve Bernier and Joe Thornton scored for the Sharks, who remain solidly in the postseason picture in the Western Conference despite losing in regulation for the first time in more than three weeks. They came in with an 8-0-2 record in their past 10 games, including two victories to start a four-game road trip.

"I think they're a desperate team," Guerin said. "They probably just got themselves back in the playoff picture with that win. I think we were just a little bit on our heels."

Indeed, San Jose came out flat and fell behind 3-0 in the first period, only to make it close in the third period. But the Hurricanes held on, thanks to Guerin's 4-minute, high-sticking penalty.

That led to Ladd's second goal that made it 5-3 with slightly more than 2 minutes left. Even though the Sharks again got within one on Thornton's power-play goal seconds later, Carolina secured the much-needed victory with Stillman's empty-netter in the final seconds.

"It was good enough to win," Ladd said.

Ward was at his best late in the second period, when he stopped Cheechoo from point-blank range by sprawling to his left to knock down a shot with his glove. Moments earlier, Ward kept the puck out on the other side of the crease.

It was needed, too, as Cheechoo and Bernier brought San Jose within 4-3 in the third period.

Whitney got the Hurricanes going early, beating Evgeni Nabokov from between the circles for a 1-0 lead. Cole stuffed in a rebound less than a minute later, and Ladd did the same late in the period to make it 3-0.

"I don't know how to explain their first three goals," Sharks defenseman Kyle McLaren said. "The puck seemed to land on their sticks at just the right moments. That's not the kind of start we've been getting off to."

It was enough for San Jose coach Ron Wilson, who replaced Nabokov with Vesa Toskala to start the second period.

Guerin cut the margin to 3-1 on the power play, taking advantage of a screened Ward to rocket a slap shot in off the post.

Staal restored the three-goal cushion midway through the second, with plenty of help from Cory Stillman and Mike Commmodore. Stillman patiently held the puck in the San Jose zone until he found an opening, and he hit Commodore with a pass on the other side of the ice.

With a simple nudge of his stick, Commodore gave a perfect feed to Staal, who did the rest. He split defenders Scott Hannan and Marc-Edouard Vlasic to get to the net, and somehow knocked the puck between Toskala's legs.

"We need to win all of them," Ladd said. "A win's a win at this point of the season, and we'll take all we can get."

Game notes
Carolina improved to 24-5-2 when scoring first. The Sharks return home to face Los Angeles on Tuesday. Stillman left the game in the first period after getting slammed in the boards. He gingerly made his way to the locker room before returning.