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.
12:41 AM ET, 6/13/06
Carolina's rental came up big
Posted by Michael Farber
Not that it has been a while since Mark Recchi won a Stanley Cup, but last time he was skating with the hardware, one of the NHL rinks was The Garden.
The Garden of Eden.
Actually Recchi won the Cup when there was a Bush in the White House, the first Bush. This was back in the paleozoic, and pre-American Idol era of 1991 as Recchi was a key part of the Pittsburgh Penguins' powerhouse that won the first of their two Cups. A compact right winger, Recchi was called the Wrecking Ball on Penguins broadcasts while he put together a 40-goal, 113-point season.
He no longer wrecks. Recchi now succeeds by eroding, by letting his heart and his brain carry him rather than his legs.
Recchi scored the goal that put the Carolina Hurricanes one game away from their first Cup, a 2-1 win in Game 4 that would have seemed quaint -- the old NHL -- if not for the rash of penalties. Recchi drew a big one on Oilers stalwart defenseman Chris Pronger in the final minute of the second period, giving the Hurricanes a four-on-three advantage. If it looked more like a Recchi dive than a Pronger crosscheck, remember that the 38-year-old Recchi has been around this particular block. If he can take off the Oilers' best player in a critical situation -- it negated what would have become an Edmonton power play -- he will go deeper than Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt. (If you don't get the reference, ask your parents.)
Recchi is a Carolina rental, a Triangle time-share. He could have played out the string in Pittsburgh this season, a team that will go nowhere for a few years -- other, of course, to another city if the new arena isn't built in the city of three rivers. But at the trading deadline, he decided to waive his no-trade clause, leaving his wife and three children in her hometown, for a chance at the brass ring/silver Cup.
"All I know is how hard it is to get here," said Recchi, who had four goals and three assists in 20 regular-season games, his getting-to-know-you time in Raleigh. "This was what I was hoping for when I agreed to waive the no-trade. [The Penguins] had played them four times before so I had a pretty good idea of what they were like. They came at you in waves. They could skate. The way the game is played now, I thought they played a style that would succeed. They were also getting quality goaltending. At the time it was [Martin] Gerber, but the goaltending was solid. This was one of the Eastern [Conference] teams that I would have considered.
"It's never easy to make a decision like that. It meant moving away from my family for three months. Maybe more. But this could be my last opportunity to take a shot. And it's worked well so far."
The winning goal came when Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette, who dressed six centermen among his 12 forwards, threw out one of his mix-and-matches as he juggled on this Monday night like one of the circus acts on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Again, ask your parents.) In an effort to get Eric Staal going, Laviolette double shifted the phenom, often using him on a line with Cory Stillman, one of his regular wingers for most of the season. Stillman created the series-turning play with about four minutes left in the second period by pressuring Pronger, getting a stick on a clearing attempt from the corner. The puck popped in the air, landed at Staal's feet, and the 21-year-old centerman moved it to Recchi, who was camped to the right of Oilers goalie Jussi Markkanen. "All I had to do," Recchi said, "was put it in the open net." The goal travelled three feet, but you don't ask how far or even how many. (It was his seventh of the playoffs.) You ask when.
Staal's revival was a predictable validation of his 100-point regular season and solid playoffs. (He also assisted on Carolina's first-period goal that came 29 seconds after the Oilers scored, a goal that didn't quite make Rexall Place a library but certainly tamped down the rabid crowd). Stillman, who scored the first goal, has been a perfect fit no matter where Laviolette used him and Justin Williams, who hits and scores and kills penalties and does everything but fill the water bottles, continued to have the best under-the-radar playoffs than anyone in recent memory.
On March 9, he made an educated guess that the right place would be Carolina.
Cam Ward did not emerge from an Ivy League institution, does not engage in conversation with the posts, nor does he rattle his stick against them. But are we witnessing a performance that bests the efforts of Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and Ron Hextall when it comes to top playoff performances among rookie goaltenders -- at least since expansion?
Carolina coach Peter Laviolette tabbed Ward to start Game 3 of the opening series against Montreal and, though Martin Gerber would get into the win column during the conference finals, it has been Ward's show. He would lead his team past the Habs, what was a scorching Devils squad and the Sabres in a memorable seven-game series. With the exterior calmness of a librarian, he has taken his team to within one win of the franchise's first Stanley Cup. The series could easily go beyond a fifth game, but Ward's postseason numbers following Game 4, a contest in which he did not have to face much quality rubber, are fantastic at 14-6, 2.00 GAA with a .924 save percentage.
Keep in mind, we are referencing three different eras and stats that might not cut it today, which may have been very good years ago.
Here is a look how the other three rookies performed (two Cup winners) in their memorable inaugural postseasons and you decide where Ward stacks up:
Dryden, 1971: Coach Al MacNeil told veteran Gump Worsley to take a seat on the bench so he could insert the rookie and Cornell product Dryden, who had all of six games (all wins) to his credit at the end of that season.
The 23-year-old goalie shocked the hockey world with a superb, headline-grabbing effort in a seven-game opening series against an ultra-powerful Boston Bruins club that boasted the league's top four scorers (Esposito, Orr, Bucyk, Hodge, with each topping 100 points) and shattered several league records for offense. Boston also had home ice.
Dryden and the Canadiens then beat the North Stars in six before another electrifying seven-game series win in the Cup round against Chicago. Dryden led his club back from a 3-2 series deficit to beat Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and company. After the Habs fell behind 2-0 in Game 7, Dryden held the host Blackhawks off the board the rest of the way while his team roared back for a 3-2 win.
Roy, 1986: He played 47 games as a rookie and established himself as the No. 1. So it was no surprise Doug Soetaert was the backup when the playoffs began. But it was surprising that a 20-year-old rookie was about the put the seventh-best team in the Eastern Conference on his back and carry it to a title.
Roy's playoff debut resulted in a 3-1 win over Boston. The Habs swept that best-of-five division semi before needing overtime of Game 7 to get past the pesky Whalers. Roy held Ron Francis and Hartford to two goals or less in five games.
Next up was a conference final engagement with the Rangers and their young goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck. A five-game series victory set the Stanley Cup finals stage for Roy, who limited the Blueshirts to nine goals while recording his first postseason shutout in Game 4.
In the finals against well-stocked (nine 20-goal scorers) Calgary and their rookie goalie Mike Vernon, Roy allowed a playoff-high five goals in Game 1. Not the least bit shaken, he then led Montreal to four straight wins, holding on for dear life against a Flames comeback attempt at the end of Game 5. Roy was awarded the Conn Smythe, the youngest winner of the award.
Playoff Stats: 15-5, 1.92 GAA, 1 SHO, .923 SV%
Hextall, 1987: The Flyers dealt Bob Froese and turned the keys over to the feisty 22-year-old Hexy. The puck-handling netminder delivered a league-best 37 wins in helping lead the Flyers to the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Philly hooked up with the sub-.500 division rival Rangers in the opening round. Hextall's playoff debut was a not-so-memorable 3-0 setback. But the Flyers took the series in six with the young goalie posting two shutouts, including the clincher.
Next up was another fierce rival, the Islanders, with their mix of great veterans (Trottier, Bossy, Potvin) that had seen better days and younger players such as Pat LaFontaine. Hextall experienced his first Game 7 and passed that test with a 5-1 win. The victory sent to Flyers into an conference final matchup with Montreal and Roy. Hextall allowed at least three goals in each game, but it was a series the black and orange claimed in six to set up a meeting for a memorable Cup battle with the mighty Oilers.
Edmonton had three of the league's top four scorers in the regular season (Gretzky, Kurri, Messier) and went 12-2 through the first three rounds, winning the tight games and not-so-tight games. The Oilers won the first two at home, but Hextall and the Flyers would turn the series into a seven-game affair before bowing. Hextall, who did not allow the Oilers more than four goals in any game while compiling a 3.09 GAA, became the fourth player from the Cup-losing team to win the Smythe.