EDMONTON, Alberta (AP)—Only 21 and wrapping up his second NHL season, Eric Staal is two wins away from a Stanley Cup championship. He could easily take it all for granted. He couldn’t be blamed for brushing off that once-in-a-lifetime talk.
Then he looks at five of his 30-something teammates.
Their combined Stanley Cup titles? Zero.
No wonder they spoke up after the Hurricanes lost to Buffalo in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
“They’ve all been around a long time and never won the Stanley Cup,” Staal remembered. “They wanted the younger guys to realize that it’s not going to happen every year. You’ve got to take advantage when you get the chance.”
Carolina rallied to win Game 7 against the Sabres, then jumped ahead of the Edmonton Oilers with two straight wins in the Stanley Cup finals. The Hurricanes arrived in chilly, rainy Alberta on Thursday, fully aware of what a precious opportunity this is.
Game 3 is Saturday night.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re 21 or 31,” said Brind’Amour, Carolina’s 35-year-old captain. “You may never get another chance. We all know how hard it is to get here.”
Brind’Amour has been in the league for 17 years, played a total of 1,323 regular-season and playoff games, and went to the finals two other times. Quite a record, but not quite good enough to sip champagne from the cup.
Hedican, a 35-year-old defenseman, made it to the finals as a rookie with Vancouver in 1994, returned eight years later with Carolina and still hasn’t gotten his name engraved on that treasured trophy.
Whitney, 34, didn’t make it to the finals until this, his 14th season. Weight, 35, waited even longer, finally getting there on his 15th try after years of bad timing. He left the New York Rangers one year before they broke their long cup drought; he arrived in Edmonton after they broke up their championship dynasty.
“When you’ve been around a while, you realize how tough it is to get here and how tough it is to get back,” Whitney said. “Back in the ’80s, everyone expected the Oilers to be in it every year. But with the new economics, anybody can compete, anybody can move up to challenge for a championship. You’ve got to enjoy the opportunity, seize the opportunity and understand how valuable it is.”
No one understands that more than Wesley, this year’s version of Ray Bourque.
The 37-year-old defenseman has been around for 18 years and played in 1,311 regular-season games—the eighth-most in NHL history for a player who hasn’t won a championship.
Starting out in Boston, Wesley reached the finals in two of his first three seasons, but the Bruins lost both times to the powerful Oilers. Wesley got another chance in 2002 with the Hurricanes, but they were wiped out in five games by dominant Detroit.
Here we go again, and this appears to be Wesley’s best chance yet to claim that elusive championship.
The Oilers might have something to say about that, of course.
They’re back at home after a dismal start to the series in Raleigh, blowing a three-goal lead in the opener and getting embarrassed 5-0 in Game 2. Making matters worse, they lost their playoff star, goalie Dwayne Roloson, to a series-ending knee injury.
In this hockey crazed city on the western Canadian plains, there’s plenty of tradition and history to draw on for a comeback.
Edmonton’s arena is located along Wayne Gretzky Drive, just across the street from a building that’s adorned with a large mural showing five rings— one for each of the team’s Stanley Cup titles in the 1980s and 1990.
“Now it’s time for the other hand,” the sign says.
During the Gretzky-Messier-Coffey-Fuhr era, championships were expected in these parts. By contrast, this run to the finals has been a total surprise, produced by an eighth-seeded team that barely made the playoffs.
North America’s most northern sports city is all pumped up about returning to the Stanley Cup finals after a 16-year absence. The Oilers want to feed off that excitement.
“We’re excited to be back in Edmonton,” said Ryan Smyth, shortly after arriving in Oil Country following a nearly five-hour flight from Tobacco Road. “We’ve just got to make sure we take advantage of it.”
Even though Carolina appears to have all the momentum, the Oilers have been in this position before. They opened a second-round series against San Jose with two straight road losses, but bounced back to win Game 3 in overtime and didn’t lose again, capturing the series in six games.
Overall, Edmonton is 6-2 at Rexall Place during the playoffs.
“A series doesn’t get started until the road team wins,” Smyth said. “Obviously, we’ve been effective at home. We’ve got to make sure we continue that.”
The Hurricanes realize this series is a long way from being decided. And who knows when they’ll get another opportunity to win the cup if they don’t take finish this one off.
“We’re glad we took care of our business at home, but we realize it’s going to be a lot tougher to win in Edmonton,” Whitney said. “We’re going to have our hands full.”