Once upon a time, a tortoise challenged a hare to a series of hockey games. The hare said, "You're kidding, eh? I've got it all. I'm headed to the Bunny Hall of Fame, and my legendary coach is already there. I'll sweep the floor with you." The tortoise wasn't very experienced, but it had an ace up its carapace—the neutral-zone trap. The tortoise would turn the series into an obstacle course, grab some fur to rein in the hare, and if the hare was napping, die tortoise might do some damage and win a couple of matches. This is a bedtime version of the 2002 Stanley Cup finals between the Detroit Red Wings (hare) and the Carolina Hurricanes (tortoise), and it raises one question: Are the Hurricanes capable of turning what appears to be a mismatch into a competitive series?
The Cup finals will not be a skillathon, like Detroit's epic seven-game victory over the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference finals ("the best series you've ever seen," Brett Hull of the Red Wings said afterward), but a series in which mere will be few goals and fewer style points. By committing to a 1-2-2 forecheck that forces an abundance of turnovers, and by tidying up rebounds that goalie Arturs Irbe occasionally leaves like crumbs along a fairy-tale trail, the Hurricanes can make heavily favored Detroit sweat. Even during their series against the Avalanche, the Red Wings were aware of Carolina, having watched the Hurricanes gradually dismantle the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games in the Eastern Conference finals. "Me and Steve watched a few of the Carolina games together," Hull says of captain Steve Yzerman. "We looked at each other and said, 'These guys are a whale of a team—pardon the pun.' [The Carolina franchise used to be the Hartford Whalers, until it moved in 1997.] They're young. They're strong. They're enthusiastic. They're disciplined." This is no goober hockey team.
Carolina is only a figurative tortoise, especially on the wings. Sami Kapanen, second-line rookie revelation Erik Cole and mainstay Jeff O'Neill are quick enough to back off the Detroit defense, which survived a few shaky moments early against the Avalanche. None of the Hurricanes forwards, however, are game-breakers in the way Yzerman, Hull and Sergei Fedorov are for the Wings. Using the trap is fine, but no team since the 1995 New Jersey Devils has won a Cup thriving on turnovers alone. Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward, who was a regular for Detroit from 1996-97 through 2000-01 and could have changed his first name to Damn considering the abuse he took from coach Scotty Bowman, has not seen this much talent coming at him on a regular basis since practices in Detroit last year. Ward, who was traded to the Hurricanes, will have to contend with an even more powerful arsenal now: Last summer the Wings added Hull and 590-goal scorer Luc Robitaille.
The pressure will fall on the 35-year-old Irbe, literally the last man standing. In a universe of butterfly goaltenders, Irbe is the only netminder who still stands up, plays angles and kicks out rebounds. For him every night is That '70s Show. He's so old-fashioned, he patches his own equipment. Irbe's gear, especially the trademark white pads that repel pucks as if they were Flubber, is older than some of Toronto coach Pat Quinn's grudges. "Archie looks at it this way," says Carolina's goaltending consultant Don Edwards. "You have an old pair of shoes, they feel comfortable. Why switch to a new pair when the old ones still fit?" Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice did some switching of his own early in the postseason, yanking a shaky Irbe in mid-game during consecutive first-round losses to the Devils and replacing him with backup Kevin Weekes. "I was low for a brief moment," Irbe says. "Then I said, 'Screw it.' What can you do? I wasn't going to lose any more sleep."
The benching—or "adjustment," as the Carolina coaches prefer to call it—did Irbe wonders, even if he's loath to admit it. Maurice reinserted Irbe in Game 4 of the conference semifinals against the Montreal Canadiens soon enough that his confidence was not shattered. His play against Toronto, in which he allowed only six goals, none of them during five-on-five, compares favorably with his performance in leading the San Jose Sharks to a colossal first-round upset of Detroit in 1994. "They have very strong goaltending in Irbe," Wings associate coach Dave Lewis says. "He's almost invincible at times."
The first appearance in the finals for the Hurricanes was a vindication for Maurice, who was 19 in 1986 when the franchise last won a playoff series. He's the NHL's youngest coach—in his seventh season at the helm, he's also second in tenure behind Scotty Bowman, who's been with the Wings for nine years—a survivor worthy of his own show. Maurice's job was hanging by a thread last December after Carolina lost four straight games (one was an overtime defeat) by a combined score of 19-7. But the Hurricanes won in Florida on Dec. 8, starting a streak of four wins in five games. Maurice, whose teams had won only four playoff games in his first six years and who was atop everybody's next-coach-to-be-fired list, solidified his job and found a way to implant the seed of defensive accountability and make it the hallmark of a team that had been searching for an identity for years.
The Hurricanes' charge through the East—they won six of nine road games (including all three Game 6s) and six of seven overtime matches—was not a shock as much as a reaffirmation of the system and of the young talent brought in by general manager Jim Rutherford. "This is not just a team that's going to be good for a short stand," says center Rod Brind'Amour. "We've got a chance to always be good."
The Carolina draft of 1998 won't rank with the alltime haul the Wings made in '89—Fedorov, the NHL's MVP in '93-94; Nicklas Lidstrom, who won the Norris Trophy last season; hard-hitting elite defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov (he retired after a debilitating limo accident six days after Detroit won the Cup in '97); and three others still in the league-but it laid a solid foundation with forwards Cole, Josef Vasicek, Tommy Westlund, Jaroslav Svoboda and its No. 1 pick, Jeff Heerema. Heerema, who was dominant while playing for Lowell of the American Hockey League this season, is expected to compete for a job on one of Carolina's top two lines in 2002-03.
Cole, as part of the BBC line with Brind'Amour and Bates Battaglia, has been the playoff prize, a blossoming power winger with speed and an unfettered willingness to crash the crease. "That Cole," says Wings defenseman Mathieu Dandenault, "likes to get his nose dirty." Cole, 23, could be a 30-goal linchpin within two seasons, but he's not the most talented young Hurricanes forward. Svoboda, 22, has a chance to be an elite sniper, filling Carolina's most pressing need. Svoboda, who wasn't recalled from the minors until March, has the best hands on the team and can stickhandle in a phone booth. With the 6'4", 200-pound Vasicek, 21, eventually developing into a No. 1 center and 21-year-old defenseman David Tanabe, an Astaire on skates who has not played since breaking his right wrist in Round 1, Carolina will no longer be a playoff interloper but a postseason fixture. "Look at that  draft," Ward says. "It's one of those things that you have to be impressed with. A lot of times teams try to replace components with players they buy."
The bad old days of Hurricanes hockey, when the radio broadcast of a Detroit-Carolina game in 1999 was aired on tape delay because East Carolina was playing in the Mobile Alabama Bowl, are history, as fans flock to the sport that is the NASCAR of the North. They might need a rabbit's foot against a team with nine future Hall of Fame players, but in any case, the Hurricanes have come out of their shell. ?