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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.
4:13 PM ET, 6/06/06

Hurricane hoo doo

Posted by Michael Farber
If it happens once, it is an event.

If it happens twice, it is a pattern.

If it happens three times - and you think Arlo Guthrie knew what he was singing about a few generations ago in Alice's Restaurant - it is a conspiracy. And if it happens to almost every team that you play and you are the Carolina Hurricanes, you have an even better chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

Maybe hydra-headed Carolina defenseman Mike Commodore has a voodoo doll and keeps sticking pins in it before each series. Maybe it is nothing more than the basic attrition of a sport that exacts an enormous physical toll, a two-month marathon of pain. But the knee injury that Edmonton Oilers goaltender Dwayne Roloson sustained in the third period in Game 1 is only the latest in a series of misfortunes to befall the opponents of a team that might be making its own luck, but certainly seems to be getting a nudge from the hockey gods.

Not that the noble Hurricanes are into Schadenfreude in a big way - "You don't want to see anyone hurt," Commodore said -- but this is getting ridiculous. To recap:

After dropping the first two games at home in the first round, Justin Williams inadvertently gets his stick blade under the visor of Canadiens captain Saku Koivu in Game 3 in Montreal. Koivu sustains a serious eye injury, one that still is not completely healed. The Canadiens, as shallow as Jessica Simpson, have to move Radek Bonk to center on the first line and a nascent Stanley Cup bid by the NHL's heritage franchise collapses. Carolina moves on in six games.

In the third round, Carolina faces a depleted Buffalo defense. Dimitri Kalinin is out for the entire series, but then Henrik Tallinder, the Sabres most effective blueliner, breaks his arm on a seemingly harmless play. The veteran Teppo Numminen, who has pulled his groin in Game 1, returns for four-plus minutes in Game 6, aggravates the injury, then misses Game 7.

Okay, stuff happens. But then bulwark defenseman Jay McKee develops a weird infection in his foot and misses the seventh game, forcing the Sabres to employ what amounts to four minor-leaguers. The Sabres are like the Black Knight chasing Monty Python's holy grail: no matter what, it's only a flesh wound. Carolina trails 2-1 after two periods, but the natural order of the hockey universe is restored in the third period in Game 7. The Hurricanes advance.

Now Roloson goes down, the victim of a well-intentioned shove by Oilers defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron, who was trying to prevent Andrew Ladd from scoring and knocked the onrushing forward into his netminder. These kinds of plays happen to goaltenders once every few games. As Roloson stayed down, some of the Hurricanes thought he was just trying to buy some time. In fact, he had strained his right medial collateral ligament and hyperextended his elbow, spelling the end of his season.

Ty Conklin subbed the final six minutes, making two saves and then handling a puck behind the net as if he should have been wearing a hazmat suit, coughing it up to Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour for the winning goal with about a half-minute left.

For the rest of the series, coach Craig MacTavish can choose between Conklin and Jussi Markkanen, both of whom auditioned for the No. 1 job on Tuesday during practice. (If this were American Idol, both were playing the William Hung role although maybe nothing should be read into any of those pucks whizzing by.)

MacTavish says he has two NHL goaltenders "who've done it on the big stage before," but goaltending was an issue all season until the acquisition of Roloson just prior to the trade deadline. General manager Kevin Lowe kept talking about needing "one more save," exactly what Roloson provided down the stretch even if he was not particularly effective in Game 1 against Carolina. (He yielded a particularly bad rebound on Brind'Amour's first goal, which cued the comeback.) But given the 2005-06 track record and the recent inactivity of Markkanen and Conklin, the goaltending picture in Edmonton certainly isn't a Rembrandt.

The Hurricanes -- forced to play without dynamic left winger Erik Cole for the playoffs after Brooks Orpik's hit from behind broke Cole's neck in March -- bristled at the notion of luck or destiny after their practice. They have connected the injury dots of their playoff foils -- "Yeah, we've talked about it in here," fourth-liner Craig Adams said -- but all parrot the line that it hardly matters who they play than how they play.

"It doesn't matter who they have in nets (in Game 2)," veteran right wing Mark Recchi said. "If we play the same way as we did in the first game, we're going to get beat."

Maybe. But if you need a director for the Stanley Cup highlight film, definitely check on Oliver Stone's availability.

12:24 PM ET, 6/06/06

Ward's ragged glory

Posted by Allan Muir
It's ironic that in the process of beating the Oilers in Game 1, Cam Ward seemed to channel the spirit of one of the legends of Edmonton's dynasty period.

Ward's performance last night was classic Grant Fuhr, an effort filled with so many remarkable individual moments when the game was on the line that you forgot that he skated off the ice with a 4.00 GAA. All that counts is that he made the saves when his team needed him most, and that the Hurricanes came away with a 1-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Finals.

It's not often that a goalie gives up four and comes out as the game's first star, but that was the essence of Fuhr, bending under the face of formidable pressure, but never breaking. In many ways, Ward's efforts were evocative of Fuhr's finest moments, such as the 1987 Canada Cup Finals against the Russians. Give one up on a penalty shot? No problem. A goal caused by a crazy bounce off the hindquarters of a defender? Hey, it happens. Get undressed by a magnificent individual effort? It's not like the other guys got here by mistake, you know. Worthy opponents will do that to you.

So Ward let four pucks by him over the course of the game. But when the 'Canes needed a big save, either to stop the bleeding, turn the tide, or save the day, he was there. Just ask Edmonton's Shawn Horcoff, who probably spent a tormented night dreaming of being smothered by a mammoth trapper. Twice, Horcoff was robbed blind from in close by Ward, including a highlight reel, post-to-post, game-saving glove save with mere seconds left on the clock. When it was all on the line, he was there. Just like Fuhr.

Because of all the firepower in the old Oilers lineup, Fuhr's contributions to the Edmonton dynasty tend to be overlooked. In the event that the Hurricanes go on to take the Cup in 2006, it's unlikely that Ward's equally magnificent efforts will meet the same fate.

1:42 AM ET, 6/06/06

Just another winner for Brind'Amour

Posted by Kostya Kennedy
RALEIGH -- Sitting before the media, some 30 minutes after he'd won yet another playoff game for his Carolina Hurricanes, Rod Brind'Amour had the sober bearing of a man just off a day at the office. He didn't laugh or crack wise. He didn't exult. He scarcely raised his voice. And of the puck he had knocked into Edmonton's suddenly wide-open net with just 31 seconds left in the game, the winning goal, Brind'Amour said: "It wasn't much that I did."

That's four game-winners for Brind'Amour this playoff season, and it was second goal of the game. He's used to this.

He wore a black ballcap and a black jacket zipped to his collarbone, and he regarded everyone with those shiny, unwavering blue eyes. You don't forget Brind'Amour's face once you've studied it: Hard angles at the chin and cheek. A certain pallor. Too much nose. Now it's the face of a franchise closing hard on a Stanley Cup.

"We're fun to watch," said Brind'Amour of the Hurricanes, who are becoming expert in third-period comebacks, "but it's not the way you want to do it."

That the Hurricanes did it at all in Game 1 is because of where Brind'Amour was when Carolina trailed 3-0 late in the second period: standing determinedly in front of Edmonton's net whence he put back a rebound and gave his team life.

"If we go into that second intermission down 3-0 we've got nothing, nothing," said Carolina defenseman Aaron Ward at his locker after the game. "We'd be sitting there looking at each other cross-eyed. [Brind'Amour's] goal was the catalyst, it gave us something to build on."

Or as defenseman Frantisek Kaberle said: "Roddy's goal was the big one. When you're down two goals, you can stay in your game, keep playing the way you want to. You know that one more and you're right there."

Carolina is not a team of newbies, not with Doug Weight and Mark Recchi, Bret Hedican and Glen Wesley, in the locker room. And yet as this playoff season rolls on the Hurricanes are beginning to regard their captain with kind of awe. "He just does so many things so well," said Brind'Amour's linemate Justin Williams after the game. Added center Eric Staal: "He's our leader. He has been all year. And he will continue to be."

Brind'Amour is in his second Stanley Cup final and he remembers well what happened after the Hurricanes won Game 1 over Detroit in 2002. The Red Wings didn't like that, came back and won four straight.

So Brind'Amour keeps his keel even, and never seems to blink. In the press room, he answered the questions about his goal ("just a matter of flipping it into the net") and about the entertainment value of a 5-4 game decided in the final minute ("I don't know, I [was] playing it"). Then he looked around at everyone and said, "Thank you," before taking a pull off his water bottle and heading back to the locker room. Game 2 of the finals, and the 136th playoff game of his career was less than two days away.
1:30 AM ET, 6/06/06

Ward saves day for 'Canes

Posted by Yi-Wyn Yen
RALEIGH, N.C. -- In the first four minutes the Edmonton Oilers backup's debut in the Stanley Cup finals, Ty Conklin had a brain freeze. Confused, he left his post unguarded and gave up the winning goal. "I just froze a little bit. It wasn't the play I wanted to make obviously," he said. Luckily for the Carolina Hurricanes, Cam Ward is no Ty Conklin.

In the final four seconds of the game, after making several brilliant, scrambling saves for his team, Ward came up big once again when he dove across the net and stuck his glove out to stop a puck that came flying furiously off first-line center Shawn Horcoff's stick. "Pure desperation," Ward said.

But the 22-year-old, who stopped 34 of 38 shots, rarely appears frazzled in the net. During a wild, thrilling game that offered everything but an open seat at RBC Center, Ward stayed calm and even-keeled under pressure to give the Hurricanes a 5-4 Game 1 victory. "He definitely played outstanding hockey," coach Peter Laviolette said. "There was some that should have been in the net and weren't because of his play."

Ward gave up three goals, including a penalty shot by defenseman Chris Pronger, in the first two periods as the Hurricanes struggled to skate and finish forechecking. Down 3-1 heading into the third period, winger Ray Whitney scored twice and Justin Williams tied the game within the first 10 minutes. Ward, for his part, contributed by blocking shots at crucial moments, frustrating the Oilers, who fired 18 shots in the final 20 minutes.

Horcoff nearly tied the game late in the period when Ward got tangled up behind the net. The 2002 first-round draft pick scurried back to the net just in time to throw the puck away from the crease as Horcoff took a shot. "I got it up and it came up across his arm. The second one came off the backboards and I was able to get it up and it came across. I didn't have much of an angle. [Ward] played great tonight," Horcoff said. "We have to be patient and keep doing the same things. [Ward] made some good saves, and there's not much you can do about that."
12:34 AM ET, 6/06/06

Unfortunate situation for Oilers

Posted by Michael Farber
Jason Williams
With Dwayne Roloson out for the rest of the series, the Oilers will need a number of players to step up their play.
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Not that the Edmonton Oilers are in deep trouble necessarily with the knee injury to Dwayne Roloson late in Game 1, but now they have the option of proceeding in the Stanley Cup finals with either Ty Conklin or Jussi Markkanen in goal.

This is a Hobson's Choice ... and if the Oilers had someone in their system named Hobson who was a reliable puck stopper, he might be in the net in Game 2 Wednesday against the Carolina Hurricanes.

When Oilers defenseman Marc-André Bergeron shoved a charging Andrew Ladd into Roloson with 5:54 left in the third period, and Roloson spent a few minutes on the ice, the Oilers' rosy world changed. Roloson had been the backbone of the team since his acquisition just prior to the trade deadline, a vast upgrade on the Oilers' feckless goaltending troika of Conklin, Markkanen and the since-traded Mike Morrison, three goalies whose save percentages, if they had dipped only a little, would have looked like superb scores on the math portion of the SATs. Coach Craig MacTavish said he would make a decision Tuesday on which way to go, but Conklin certainly didn't play himself into the job in his five-plus minutes Monday.

The unfortunate goalie had been sitting opposite the Edmonton bench for almost three full periods, but the truth was he had been sitting there pretty much since the trade with Minnesota for Roloson. Conklin's last appearance had been in the Oilers' final regular-season game, after Roloson had played 19 straight and helped assure Edmonton's playoff berth. Prior to that cameo, his last NHL game was March 7. (He also spent two games in the minors in a conditioning stint.) Like pitchers, goalies rarely are effective on seven week's rest. "Obviously," Conklin said, "that's not the situation you wanted." He came in, cold as a usurer's heart, made a couple of stops and, according to MacTavish, gained some confidence.

Maybe, MacTavish suggested, a little too much confidence.

The puck was behind the Oilers' net with fewer than 40 seconds and Conklin held it and held it some more, far too long under the circumstances that late in a tie game. When he finally did move it on his backhand, he shoveled it at point-blank range -- a distance of three feet, at most -- to Oilers defenseman Jason Smith, putting the puck directly in the Edmonton captain's skates. Smith had no play, and the puck bounced free to the Hurricanes' Rod Brind'Amour, who nudged in a backhander into the empty net for the winning goal in a weird 5-4 Carolina victory, his second sitter of the night. "I just held on to the puck too long," Conklin said in a measured tone, embracing the responsibility in a quiet dressing room. "That's not a mistake I would normally make. But regardless of inactivity, I still have to make the right play."

The touchstone in Edmonton always has been defenseman Steve Smith's own goal in the 1986 playoffs, the one that he banked off goaltender Grant Fuhr's skate against Calgary in Game 7 of the 1986 conference final. This one was another malfunction at the junction, crossed wires between a goalie and a defenseman named Smith. Like the infamous last Oilers boner, this might prove to be the mistake that denies Edmonton a Stanley Cup. But there were extenuating circumstances this time that should soften the blow, that should lend some the context over time. Steve Smith's mistake interrupted a dynasty -- the Oilers would win five Cups in seven years but should have won six -- while Conklin's miscue merely hastened an untimely end in Game 1 for a team that frittered away a 3-0 lead in the final 24 minutes, a severe disappointment but nothing as calamitous as a classic error that resonates two decades later.

Certainly Conklin did not react like the crestfallen Smith did that night at Northlands Coliseum. The goalie was readily available after the game, walking the curious through his abbreviated evening. When Roloson went down on the play, his first reaction was to wonder if his partner was okay. Then he had to flip the switch internally. "Your heart," Conklin said, "starts pumping pretty good." This is the lot in life of the backup goalie. As Conklin said, "You have no choice but to deal with it."

Now Edmonton must deal with the reality of its scrambled goaltending situation, which has gyrated this potentially close series off its axis.

Of course, you have to feel for Conklin in the first nationally televised crisis of his life.

The good news: the first two games of the Stanley Cup final are on OLN so maybe nobody saw it.
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