This is why Cam Ward is going to be one of the premier goaltenders in the NHL for years to come. It’s why he’s going to be a great rival to Tim Thomas in Boston, Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh and Martin Brodeur in New Jersey for for the foreseeable future (including however much longer Brodeur is still active). It’s why Team Canada has a grueling decision to make for its starting goaltender for next winter’s Olympics — the way, he’s played, how can you not go with Ward over Brodeur or fellow first-round loser Roberto Luongo?

His team down 0-3 heading into tonight’s Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals in Raleigh, Ward basically said to bring on the challenge during his media chat yesterday.

“I want to be that guy. I want to be the guy who has to perform at a high level in the tough situation,” Ward said in the News & Observer.

It’s a familiar refrain from Ward, who said mostly the same things when his team was battling the Devils and Bruins to seven games. It’s also the type of thing you expect the top puck-stoppers, the likes of Thomas, Brodeur and Luongo, to say no matter what the situation. Of course, you wouldn’t expect it from media-ducker Cristobal Huet in Chicago, but that’s another story.

The best part of Ward’s accountability is that the Hurricanes’ predicament is far from his fault. With defensemen playing against the high-powered Penguins as though they’re participating in public skating and forwards who are suddenly allergic to backchecking, Ward’s been hung out to dry more in this series than during the previous two months of the season.

Over on the Pittsburgh side, Sidney Crosby has laid down the gauntlet for his team to show the gumption to finish off the ‘Canes.

“We’ve had a chance a couple of times to put teams away and haven’t done it, so we have to learn from that,” the Pens captain said in the Post-Gazette. “Make sure our desperation’s there. We don’t want to waste any time.”

An early end would benefit the Pens so they could get some rest for Sergei Gonchar’s calf injury before the Stanley Cup final. Plus, they don’t know how much longer their power play can stay as red-hot as it has been. But more than anything they don’t know when Ward might get into that unbeatable zone, which might not carry Carolina to a historic comeback but would at least force the Pens to fight for their fourth victory.

You can never underestimate Ward, who is a leader with both his words and his actions. It’s a citizen like Ward that makes you think maybe goaltenders should be allowed to be captains. And will make things interesting for the Team Canada brass come this coming winter.