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2:11 PM ET, 6/18/06
'Canes running out of chances
Posted by Allan Muir
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.