RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—Rod Brind’Amour lifted the Stanley Cup above his head, tears of joy streaming down his face. This one was for the captain and all those Carolina old-timers whose names are going on hockey’s most revered trophy for the first time.
Of course, they couldn’t have done it without the kid.
Rookie goalie Cam Ward stopped nearly everything that came his way, finishing off a brilliant playoffs with a rock-solid performance in Game 7. The Hurricanes skated away with their first Stanley Cup title, beating Edmonton 3-1 in the winner-take-all finale Monday night.
“It’s just surreal,” said Brind’Amour, the team’s 35-year-old captain, his eyes still red after he left ice. “The guys on this team have been through years and years of heartache. After Game 6, I knew there’s no way we were letting this go. Too many guys on this team deserve it.”
A couple of low-scoring defenseman, Frantisek Kaberle and Aaron Ward, put Carolina ahead. Justin Williams finished off the Oilers, scoring an empty-net goal with 1:01 remaining after Edmonton playoff star Fernando Pisani broke up Cam Ward’s shutout early in the third.
Oilers defenseman Chris Pronger, a stalwart throughout the playoffs, gave up the puck in the Carolina zone and wound up making a helpless dive to block Williams’ gimme into the goal that had been vacated by Jussi Markkanen in favor of an extra skater.
Bret Hedican, among the contingent of 30-something players who had never won the cup, leaped for joy after Williams’ shot went in. The crowd of nearly 19,000, which stood throughout the game, went into a frenzy.
In the return of hockey after a season-ruining lockout, the cup went to Tobacco Road—territory best known for college basketball and NASCAR racing.
“I can’t describe it,” said Hedican, who lost in two previous trips to the finals. “Both times were gut-wrenching. I’ve got the scars. But tonight, all that work, all that hard work, and our team winning, it all paid off.”
Now, they’ll all get their names on it. Weight, who didn’t play because of an injured right shoulder, put on his uniform and came out to hoist the trophy. It leaned a bit toward his right side, but he didn’t come close to dropping it.
He and the others waited too long to let it slip away.
“I still can’t believe it,” said Wesley, a 37-year-old defenseman who might retire now that he has his title. “It honestly feels like a dream to me.”
Ward, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the most valuable player in the playoffs, wasn’t even Carolina’s No. 1 goalie at the beginning of the postseason, but the 22-year-old rookie got the call when Martin Gerber struggled in an opening round against Montreal.
The young star wound up winning more games in the playoffs (15) than he did backing up Gerber during the regular season (14).
“The kid came in when we were down and out,” Brind’Amour said. “He brought us to life. Goaltending wins championships, make no mistake about it. We had the best goalie in the playoffs.”
The Hurricanes were born in the old World Hockey Association as the Boston-based New England Whalers, and entered the NHL in 1979 playing out of Hartford. When their demands for a new arena were turned aside, the team headed south in 1997.
The first two years in Carolina were a dismal experience, the team forced to play 80 miles away in Greensboro while a new arena was built in Raleigh. So few fans turned up in the beginning that the upper deck was curtained off.
Now, the Hurricanes are champions, capitalizing on their second trip to the finals. Four years ago, they were beaten in five games by Detroit.
The Oilers have nothing to be ashamed of, becoming the first eighth-seeded team to make the finals under the current format. But they failed to bring Canada its first champion since Montreal in 1993, or Edmonton its first cup since 1990, when the remnants of the Gretzky-Messier-Coffey-Fuhr dynasty won the last of its five titles in seven years.
Pisani came through again, scoring his playoff-leading 14th goal by crashing the net to knock in a rebound at 1:03 of the third. Markkanen had another strong game with 24 saves, several of them dazzling.
It wasn’t enough.
“It’s just a matter of a few bounces and that’s the difference today,” Markkanen said. “They were just a little bit better.”
The series looked as if it would be a rout when Carolina rallied from a three-goal deficit to win Game 1 and blew out the Oilers 5-0 in Game 2. The Oilers also had to cope with the loss of playoff star Dwayne Roloson, who had played every minute of the postseason in goal until he went out with a knee injury in the opener.
But, led by Markkanen and Pisani, the Oilers rebounded from a 3-1 deficit. They pulled out an overtime win in Carolina—with the cup somewhere in the bowels of the RBC Center, waiting to be handed out if the Hurricanes won.
Edmonton returned home and blew out Carolina 4-0 in Game 6.
That’s where the comeback ended. Brind’Amour made sure of that, urging on his teammates to finish what they started.
“He’s the leader of this team,” Cam Ward said. “Once again, he came up huge for us.”
Right from the start, Carolina seized the momentum with the sort of energy and passion that had been missing since Game 5.
But Mark Recchi, another member of the 30-something club whose only championship came 15 years ago, passed out from behind the net and the puck ricocheted to Aaron Ward moving in from the point. He beat the screened Markkanen with a slap shot through a half-dozen players milling about in front of the goal.
It was the Hurricanes’ first score in 95:01, since the second period of Game 5.
Carolina thought it had another goal in the final seconds of the period when Craig Adams backhanded a bouncing puck off and over Markkanen, who lost sight of it flipping toward the net. Defenseman Steve Staios dove into the goal and touched it with his right glove, enough to stop play on a delayed penalty call even though the puck appeared to cross the line with 4.1 seconds left.
Carolina finally made it 2-0 with just over four minutes gone in the second. Kaberle fired a slap shot over a diving Edmonton defenseman Jason Smith, whose sweater appeared to catch part of the puck and cause it to dip under Markkanen’s left pad when he had his glove out to make the save.
It was the first time that three straight Stanley Cup finals have gone to Game 7. … Bill McCreary and Brad Watson were picked as the referees, working their second game in a row. This was the 11th straight finals appearance for McCreary.