Drop the gloves during the playoffs with SI.com's writers in the NHL Cup Blog, a daily journal of hockey commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
1:52 AM ET, 6/18/06
A triumph for the NHL
Posted by Allan Muir
I can't be certain, but as I got into my car tonight after the game, I think I heard the Brass Bonanza, playing softly in the distance.
Might have been my mind playing tricks on me but, hey, whose head wasn't swirling after the 60-minute sprint of end-to-end drama that was Game 7? Give me a few more like this and I'll stop complaining about the overly long 82-game regular season. Promise.
What a triumph for the league. This was the New NHL at its finest: low scoring but plenty of scoring chances, speed through the middle and brutal collisions in the trenches, bright young stars and twilight-year veterans, all playing with the skill and heart that the heroes of our youth employed, no matter when that was.
It was one of those games that'll cause the converted to say, "If American audiences had tuned in tonight, they'd fall in love with hockey." That's crazy, of course -- as a whole, Americans are more likely to trade in their SUVs for Yugos with cloth seats and no A/C than give this sport the respect it deserves -- but, yes, the game was that good. And, to a lesser degree, so was the series.
The best moment of the night? Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour's unwillingness to let Gary Bettman's pandering speech to the locals delay his 17-year wait to touch the Cup even one second longer. (And didn't Bettman use a variation on that same speech in 2003 in Tampa and 1999 in Dallas?) This wasn't just some kid on Christmas morning -- Brind'Amour was the guy who Santa bypassed for all those years finally getting to taste the joy of waking up and finding presents under the tree.
The look on his face when he finally hoisted it over his head? Someone else will have to find the words. No matter which team you were cheering for, you've got to get caught up in emotion as raw as that. Guys who win the Cup over and over always say "this one" is sweeter than the first, but compare the faces of previous winners Mark Recchi and Aaron Ward to first timers like Brind'Amour and Glen Wesley and Peter Laviolette and you know that can't possibly be true.
Other moments from this series that I'll remember? How about Cam Ward's miraculous glove save late in the lost cause of Game 6? A perfectly executed three-on-one is as rare as a Don Cherry sighting at The Men's Wearhouse, but execute one the Oilers did, finishing it off with a tight snapper labeled for the yawning cage.
If Ward's concentration had slipped by that point and he had waved as it went by, no one would have thought anything of it. But there he was, snapping out that glove hand like Patrick Roy, another rookie who led his team to the Cup back in the day. And though the stop itself meant nothing in the scheme of the game, it was one of those defining plays that probably helped him capture the Conn Smythe.
And what of his counterpart, Jussi Markkanen? Eight weeks ago, the guy wasn't deemed dependable enough to dress as a backup to Dwayne Roloson. Tonight, after winning three games in the Stanley Cup Finals, he kept his team within a goal of capturing a fourth until the dying seconds. In the long line of unlikely Cup heroes, few can match this mutt's "pedigree."
How about the relentless physical play of Raffi Torres and Chris Pronger, culminating in the elimination of key forward Doug Weight in Game 5? Speaking of Pronger, what of his cool customer approach to the first successful penalty shot ever taken in the Finals in Game 1? And what about the Game 5 short-handed OT goal by Fernando Pisani, the surprising sniper who authored five winners over the course of the playoffs and was Edmonton's most consistent offensive threat throughout?
And then there was the shocking return of Erik Cole in Game 6. To see a man come back less than four months after suffering a broken neck, and not only contribute to the cause, but shrug off a couple of massive hits -- well, that gives you all the ammo you need for your next "which sport has the toughest athletes" debate.
Given time to reflect, I'm sure other moments will come to mind, but I'm happy with these off the top of my head for now. How about sharing some of yours?
The Oilers rally has been extraordinary, especially sinc it has been accomplished with Jussi Markkanen in goal. After acquiring Dwayne Roloson at the trading deadline, the Oilers rode their No. 1 until they slithered into the playoffs. Markkanen and Ty Conklin, who each had .880 save percentages during the regular season, were shunted aside, alternating as backups.
If Conklin had not been the Game 1 reserve the night that Roloson was injured - and not made the egregious puckhandling gaffe in the final minute that cost Edmonton a win - he might have gone from backup to backbone, like Markkanen. When asked three days ago, coach Craig MacTavish thought about it and finally said no, based on his superior work in practice, Markkanen probably would have been Plan B in any case. But that was far easier to say after watching the Finn ease himself into the series.
Markkanen still handles the puck as if it were loaded, but his puck-stopping after the Game 2 debacle has been first-rate. His shutout in Game 6 was his first since 2003, a feat that came so easily it seemed lost in the Oilers' crushing win. He
could become the first injury replacement to win the Cup since the Oilers' Andy Moog in 1984 unless the Hurricanes find another way into Game 7. The obvious solution would be a glut of power play goals, which carried them through Game 5.
Obviously, the Oilers need to stay out of the penalty box, a matter of ratcheting up their smarts and discipline, but this is an element of the game that also confronts Carolina now. It hardy seemed to matter, given the rank incompetence of Edmonton's power play - at one point, a pathetic one-for-25 - but the Oilers have found the ability to get two-on-ones down low with the man-advantage. They scored three power play goals in nine chances in Game 6.
Even when they weren't scoring, the Oilers were throwing the puck around like they were the Harlem Globetrotters and the Carolina penalty-killers were the Washington Generals. It was amazing that point-man Chris Pronger didn't douse Hurricanes checker Kevyn Adams with a bucket of confetti.
When the Oilers landed Roloson for a first-round choice and conditional third rounder in March, MacTavish talked about the need for "one more save." If Markkanen can deliver it, one of the most improbable comebacks in the Stanley Cup final will be complete.
If the Carolina Hurricanes are going to win the Stanley Cup tonight, they better play this one like it's a Game 7.
The margin for error dissipated when their nerves seemed to fail them at home in Game 5 and their nerve totally deserted them under a physical onslaught in Game 6 when they were run out of Edmonton's rink like some garage-league outfit. While the Hurricanes have home-ice advantage and fans louder than Don Cherry's sports jackets -"Given a choice between momentum and home ice, I'll take the ice," Carolina defenseman Mike Commodore said Sunday - they also have the weight of knowing that they have wilted under pressure.
If coach Peter Laviolette can't help the Hurricanes gather themselves in Raleigh, then redneck hockey is going to have a matching red face on Tuesday morning.
The burden also falls on Rod Brind'Amour, the Carolina captain who did not make it to a media session late Sunday afternoon because he wanted to be with his children on Father's Day. This might qualify him as a finalist for the NHL's Father of the Year, but certainly not the NHL's captain of the year. This is the one sport in which the captaincy means something more than calling heads or tails. In the NHL, the captain speaks for the team. He is its voice if not always its face. With Carolina suddenly on the brink, it was entirely appropriate for Brind'Amour to have devoted 20 minutes of his day to lay out the situation, especially after his indifferent play late in the series.
What Brind'Amour would have said - changes in attitudes, changes in platitudes - would have been less significant than the fact that his mouth actually moved. This is the kind of thing that, if the Oilers win tonight, goes down on what your high school teacher called a permanent record. (Indeed, Eric Lindros has not been exonerated since ducking out of a back door of the visitor's dressing room in Detroit before Game 4 of the 1997 final after Philadelphia coach Terry Murray described his team as being in a "choking situation." Left to respond in the absence of the captain, defenseman Eric Desjardins uttered one of the most famous lines in recent Stanley Cup history: "Aiy, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi.")
Brind'Amour was a lock for the Conn Smythe Trophy midway through the series, but he won't win it if the Oilers take Game 7. Indeed, if Brind'Amour does not regain his faceoff touch or pot a goal or at least set one up, there is an outside chance that Oilers defenseman Chris Pronger will be voted the playoff MVP even with a Hurricanes win.
After capturing Game 4 in Edmonton, the task for the Carolina Hurricanes was tantalizingly clear: take just one of the next three games and they would capture the Stanley Cup.
Two of those chances now have gone by the wayside. The first, a heartbreakingly close affair that was a late-third period post away from going their way. The second, one of the most lackluster efforts ever turned in outside of Team Canada in a bronze medal game.
Neither or those losses matter now, at least not in the sense of having diminished Carolina's ability to accomplish its goal. But there's just one more chance, the third chance, and it comes Monday night. The question is, do the Hurricanes have anything left at this point to take advantage of it?
Sometimes a team can take a little something out of a loss like that 4-0 shellacking, but it's not really a heartening spin on the events for the 'Canes to say that they can't possibly play any worse and that, momentum or not, Edmonton can't possibly play that flawlessly again.
But on the bright side, rebounding off a blowout like that can be a lot easier than coming off the emotional crushing of an OT nail-biter when the Cup is in the building. It allows a team to throw everything away, to start with a clean slate. It reminds them of what it took to get where they are in the first place.
It certainly worked that way for the Oilers after being humiliated in Game 2. That 5-0 blowout never really was a contest as Edmonton struggled to adjust to the presence of Jussi Markkanen in net, and the emotional weight of wondering whether its Cup dreams had ended with starter Dwayne Roloson's injury.
The difference, of course, is that the Oilers used the latter stages of that hide tanning to establish the physical presence that they've used since to turn the tide of the series in their favor. Carolina, a team that struggled to put together a solid shift in Game 6, failed even to put up a fight.
The Hurricanes were thwarted all night long by the ferocious forechecking of the Oilers. Time and again, the first pass out of the zone was disrupted. If it wasn't the first, it was the second. Bottled up or bogged down, Carolina simply couldn't establish the speed through the middle that defined its better games of the series.
Even the many penalties the 'Canes took as their frustration grew were pointless, failing to exact any sort of physical toll that might help produce a positive result in Game 7.
So it was a complete failure. Toss it away. The Hurricanes now have about 36 hours to find a way to change their mojo.
They burned one option by inserting Erik Cole into Game 6. Coming off a 45-game injury layoff, there was reason to hope for an emotional bump from his presence. That didn't happen and Cole, although active in his first few shifts, looked every bit like a player who'd gone nearly four months without game competition. You have to wonder what, if anything, he'll have to offer on Monday night.
The 'Canes still have the choice of changing their netminder. Cam Ward was not bad in Games 5 and 6, but he didn't help them win, either. Giving up four goals in back-to-back contests to a team that was on the ropes has to put his start in jeopardy. It would be a bold move to bring Martin Gerber off the bench for Game 7, but coach Peter Laviolette has rolled the dice before in these playoffs and won.
Or perhaps they leave things the way they are and look to the advantage they worked 82 games to earn. Thanks to home ice, the 'Canes have a few things going in their favor. History, for one. Of the 13 previous Finals that have gone to seven games, the home team has captured 11. The boisterous Raleigh crowd will help, as will the last line change, and that little edge in the faceoff circle.
But in return, Carolina faces all the pressure that falls on a team that earned three wins, but failed to cash in on their first two chances to finish off the Oilers.
If you are going to throw out the hockey equivalent of Willis Reed onto the ice in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final, your team better not play like Lou Reed.
Erik Cole was the mystery guest, returning from a cloak-and-dagger trip to Denver on the off day for a CT scan on his broken neck that he sustained in early March and being inserted into the lineup in place of the injured Doug Weight, a surprise move that should have boosted the Carolina Hurricanes, inspired them to their best performance of the playoffs and enabled them to skate away with the Cup in Edmonton.
Instead they curiously were as flat as a tortilla, flat as the Earth pre-Galileo, flat as Saskatchewan. For all the good Cole did on the scoreboard -- and for a winger who hadn't played in 14 weeks, as Carolina coach Peter Laviolette noted after the game, he was one of the Hurricanes' better players -- he might as well have been Nat King Cole. Carolina got an impressive 18:31 from Cole -- even-strength, a ton of power-play time and even a dollop of penalty killing -- but a coaching move by Laviolette and a stubborn desire to play by Cole -- two things that could have smacked of genius -- suddenly, in light of the tepid performance by the Hurricanes, seemed more sour than smart.
The Hurricanes held a team meeting after the 4-0 rout. According to veteran defenseman Glen Wesley, who otherwise adopted a what-is-said-in-the-room stays-in-the-room Las Vegas approach, mentioned the word "embarrassed" had come up.
The Oilers outshot Carolina, 10-3, in the first period and had a 21-3 lead in shots with fewer than six minutes remaining in the second. But it wasn't merely the laughable disparity in shots. The game swung on the Oilers willingness to scrap for every loose puck, to win every foot race, to play a game with their legs and heart as well as their heads. If you need any further proof of the collective brain cramp suffered by the Hurricanes, they took a pair of too-many-men penalties among the nine power-play opportunities they afforded the Oilers. Earlier in the series, it might not have mattered. But Edmonton has started moving the puck quickly, scoring three power play goals and finally managing to get two-on-ones down low, looking dangerous with the man-advantage even when they didn't score.
Carolina center Kevyn Adams said he didn't think his team was uninspired, just off on a night when it squandered its remaining margin of error in the best-of-seven.
Certainly Cole's shocking appearance didn't rattle the Oilers, who bumped him around -- Ethan Moreau got a particularly solid check on him on the second shift of the game, a bit of headhunting, according to Cole -- and abused him about as much as anyone else in a white sweater. When they saw Cole take the warmup, the Oilers figured something was up. When Cole's name appeared on the greaseboard prior to the game in the Carolina lineup -- he played the right side with Eric Staal and Cory Stillman -- Edmonton defenseman Steve Staios said, "It was business as usual. We were just worried about our own game."
"We didn't even mention it," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said. "He looked to me like he was a threat out there. He wasn't tentative by any stretch of the imagination. He got some hits out there."
Cole, who said he didn't feel particularly strong in the third period, at least had one game to shake off the rust. Now he gets to rest, or at least as much rest as a five-hour plane ride across two time zones affords, before trying to win a trophy he said he has been dreaming of his entire life.
He wanted to return to the Cup chase, forcing the issue, badgering the coaches when Weight went down. He didn't owe the Hurricanes that.
But now the Hurricanes owe him at least the same honest effort that he gave to the team.