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They sold 18,978 seats at a hockey rink in Raleigh on Monday night, and almost no one used them. For three hours, from the first strains of the Canadian and U.S. national anthems until the last Carolina Hurricanes player had taken a twirl with the most fabled trophy in sports, a crowd stood as it might have for a tip-off between Duke and North Carolina and then forgot to sit, roaring in witness of a well-traveled franchise bringing another kind of championship to Tobacco Road. � In squelching what appeared to be a historic Edmonton Oilers comeback, the Hurricanes found a wellspring of energy and emotion-and a couple of goals from the oddest sources-in Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup 3-1. It was the first NHL title for a franchise, the erstwhile Hartford Whalers, that merged into the league from the defunct WHA in 1979. � Carolina was led by a 22-year-old rookie goalie, Cam Ward, who didn't even start the first two games of the playoffs; a winger, Erik Cole, playing with a broken neck that hadn't completely healed; and a pair of workmanlike defensemen, Aaron Ward and Frantisek Kaberle, who beat estimable Edmonton goalie Jussi Markkanen. Even though the NHL went to a lengthy replay and denied Carolina an apparent goal in the first period (with this league, it's always something), the Hurricanes, and their indomitable shot-blocking defense, fended off a team that mounted a furious charge in the third period. Goalie Ward finished with 22 saves and was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
Although the Cup-winning goal came on Kaberle's power-play slap shot at 4:18 of the second period, the rightful author of it was Cole, who began the playoffs two months ago in a neck brace yet made a dramatic entrance into Game 6. Cole drove to the net along the right wing, forced defenseman Jaroslav Spacek to hold him and gave the Hurricanes a man-advantage. Eight seconds later Carolina had a 2-0 lead that even the resilient Oilers, who rallied in the third period behind Fernando Pisani's playoff-leading 14th goal, couldn't surmount.
If there had been an arc to the Stanley Cup finals while the Hurricanes were taking a three-games-to-one lead-surging Carolina special teams, the imperturbability of Cam Ward, the impotence of the Edmonton power play-in Game 5 the series needed an ark. Tropical Storm Alberto was lashing Raleigh, dumping 7.6 inches of rain in 16 hours. One of the Oilers dubbed the storm Hurricane Alberta ("That's pretty clever by hockey-player standards, turning an o into an a," Oilers forward Rem Murray drolly observed), and a mood as defiant as the weather pervaded the Edmonton team, a belief that the series would return to Raleigh for Game 7 come hell or high water. The Oilers announced their intentions 16 seconds into Game 5 when Pisani tipped in defenseman Chris Pronger's point shot.
Three hours later Pisani finished what he started by picking Eric Staal's pocket, skating in alone and blistering a shot past Ward's glove for the first shorthanded overtime goal in finals history, a 4-3 Oilers win and a tropical depression for almost 19,000 Caniacs. Said Carolina coach Peter Laviolette, "In overtime we were set up to win it [on the power play]-and it didn't happen. It was a tough one to get over. Maybe the toughest we've been through."
If Carolina was reeling, Edmonton was further emboldened. From the back of the team plane the next morning, Pronger loudly demanded that someone pop in a DVD of Gladiator. "He is," left wing Ethan Moreau explained, "a control freak." Then again, after playing almost 34 minutes of Game 5, going +3 and serving as half of the Oilers sandwich (with Raffi Torres) that knocked Hurricanes center Doug Weight out of the series with a shoulder injury, Pronger could have requested the director's cut of Gigli and there wouldn't have been a peep. "He can control a plane, a room, a city, a game, a series," defenseman Steve Staios said of Pronger, a 12-year veteran who also played for the Whalers and the St. Louis Blues. "He can do whatever he wants. He's got rare leadership ability." Pronger was arguably the playoffs' most dominant skater, and Carolina tried to run the 6'6" 220-pounder at every opportunity, yet, as Hurricanes center Kevyn Adams said, "you keep going at him, but it seems like you do as much damage to yourself as you do to him."
Carolina's top line, centered by Rod Brind'Amour, drew the attention of Pronger and partner Jason Smith for most of the series, giving it the dubious honor of trying to wipe that David Letterman-like gap-toothed smile off Pronger's unmarked face. That matchup gave Carolina's second-line center, Staal, a degree of liberty. The 6'4", 205-pound Staal matter-of-factly led playoff scoring with 28 points, including eight in the finals-a remarkable achievement by a 21-year-old who is as modest as his roots, which really do come from the soil. Staal grew up on his family's sod farm in Thunder Bay, Ont., and like the three brothers destined to follow him into the NHL-defenseman Marc, 19, may play for the New York Rangers next season; center Jordan, 17, should be drafted in the top five this Saturday; and 15-year-old Jared is on track to develop into a pro-caliber winger-he began driving the tractor at around age six, rolling sod (the pay: $5 an hour, with yearly increases of a buck, only slightly less than a Stanley Cup share).
The work ethic certainly didn't hurt Eric, according to his father, Henry, who saw his son heavily scrutinized after failing to get a shot in Game 3. Eric responded, setting up the winner in Game 4 with a neat spin-a-rama pass to Mark Recchi-"Hmmm ... Eric Staal's slump?" Laviolette said, sardonically, after the match-and added two power-play goals and an assist in the Game 5 overtime loss.
Pronger's (and Torres's) devastating hit on Weight-natural attrition in a two-month hockey marathon-seemed to be just one of those things until Carolina turned it into something that had the potential to be one of Those Things, an event so inspiring, so memorable, that it may attain mythic status: in this case, the return of Cole last Saturday.
Out since March 4 with a broken vertebra in his neck, Cole began plotting his return on the Thursday flight back to Edmonton. He approached assistant coach Jeff Daniels and asked, "With Doug out, that means I'm in?" When the plane stopped in Des Moines to refuel, Daniels ran the idea by Laviolette. They decided one last CT scan couldn't hurt. In the playoffs you have to go the extra mile, and when the Oilers couldn't arrange a CT scan in Edmonton, Cole flew to Denver to have the test done. The results were examined by Cole's doctors who said the injury was about 90% healed. Essentially there would be no difference between Cole's trying to play now and in training camp.
For Cole, who had dreamed of winning the Cup since childhood, that was all the medical clearance he needed. "The healing has been maximized," he said, "and the risk is going to be with me the rest of my life." The power forward had been a 30-goal scorer and a dynamo with linemates Staal and Cory Stillman. Even if he drew only power-play duty after a 15-week absence, Cole figured to give Carolina a lift.