A minute later, Kevyn Adams lowered the boom. Then it was Eric Staal's turn. And finally, Erik Cole, the guy who took the ice armed with a doctor's note excusing him from any and all physical contact, got in on the act.
In all, Carolina registered 18 hits in the first period, five of them credited to Cole, who just two nights earlier had risked personal injury by returning ahead of schedule from broken vertebrae in his neck.
It's a largely unscientific category, but by contrast the Hurricanes were credited with 11 hits in the entirety of Saturday's humiliating 4-0 loss.
The message was clear: This wasn't the same Carolina team that played a timid Game 5, and this certainly wasn't the same Hurricanes bunch that pulled an outright no-show in Game 6.
It was a classic Game 7 effort from Carolina, even if it wasn't a classic Game 7. The Hurricanes came out aggressively – beating the Edmonton Oilers to the punch in the physical battles and scoring the first goal for just the second time in the series.
Carolina was unrelenting in its physical approach, finishing with 48 hits to nearly double Edmonton's total. Defensively, the Oilers couldn't pinpoint a single line to target with their top defensemen pairing of Chris Pronger and Jason Smith.
Early on, the Rod Brind'Amour line was the focus of their attention. That changed after Staal and Cole proved to be a handful. And what to do with Matt Cullen?
It was a complete effort when the team appeared to be on the verge of a complete collapse. There were no bad giveaways. No odd-man rushes. No defensive-zone breakdowns that left goalie Cam Ward without a prayer.
Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP – an award he richly deserved – but not because he single handedly carried the Hurricanes in Game 7. He did make some key saves Monday, particularly in the third period, but this was a team effort.
THIRD STAR OF THE DAY
Cole didn't score in Game 7 and was part of the unit responsible for allowing Edmonton's lone goal, but his mere presence on the ice was a factor. With Doug Weight out of the lineup for the second straight game, Cole provided forward depth and some speed up front. It was his strong rush to the net early in the second period that drew Jaroslav Spacek's holding penalty. Seconds later, Carolina went up 2-0 on Frantisek Kaberle's power-play goal. And nine hits from a guy at risk of damaging his fragile vertebrae? Wow.
SECOND STAR OF THE DAY
Shifting to his natural center position with Weight out of the lineup, Cullen had perhaps his best game of the postseason. His shot on Edmonton goalie Jussi Markkanen early in the first period triggered a series of events that culminated in Aaron Ward's goal. He was easily the best playmaker on the ice for the first half of Game 7, setting up Mark Recchi for a couple of excellent scoring chances and lending a hand in Kaberle's second-period goal. Cullen finished with two assists, a team-high four shots and a plus-1 rating.
FIRST STAR OF THE DAY
Cam Ward described his one goal allowed as a bad rebound goal. Fifteen minutes later, he faced a similar one-two punch when Fernando Pisani followed up a Raffi Torres shot with one of his own. This rush would end not with an Oilers celebration, but with Torres doubled over in disbelief. Or was it frustration? It was the second demoralizing save of the third period for Ward, who also stopped Radek Dvorak on a partial breakaway on the period's first shift. It was a typical resilient effort from the Hurricanes' rookie goalie, who didn't even begin this postseason as a starter and was briefly replaced by coach Peter Laviolette in the Buffalo series.
How many times in the playoffs have we seen a team get the gift of a 5-on-3 power play, only to see momentum shift the other way after a dramatic kill? It wasn't quite San Jose's three-men, one-stick kill from the conference semifinals (against these same Oilers), but Carolina got a huge lift after going two men down late in the second period. Only four seconds had ticked off Niclas Wallin's minor for hooking when Aaron Ward cleared the puck over the glass to set up the 5-on-3. Edmonton had nearly two full minutes to cut Carolina's lead in half, but exactly 60 seconds later Ryan Smyth took a lazy hooking penalty to turn a prime scoring opportunity into just another power play. And in taking himself off the ice, Smyth neutralized the Oilers' top power forward – a guy willing to do the dirty work in front of goalie Cam Ward.
This wasn't the best game for the on-ice officials – or those off the ice, for that matter. Referees Brad Watson and Bill McCreary disagreed over whether the Hurricanes should have been awarded a penalty shot when Edmonton defenseman Steve Staios covered the puck in the crease in the closing seconds of the first period. McCreary won – Carolina wasn't awarded the penalty shot – but the debate was rendered moot when an enhanced NBC replay revealed the puck had actually crossed the goal line before Staios controlled it. It should have been a Hurricanes goal. Watson and McCreary also regressed into see-no-evil mode in the final period, calling only one minor penalty in the first 19 minutes.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR THURSDAY
NHL Awards Show, OLN – It's not over yet, folks. On Thursday, the NHL presents its annual postseason awards in a prime-time show from Vancouver. Two nights later, it's the NHL entry draft. Defenseman Erik Johnson could become just the fifth American to be taken with the No. 1 overall pick when St. Louis opens the proceedings by announcing its selection.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT Watch
Ward's saves on Torres and Pisani represented the in-game highlight of the night. But for sheer emotional value, it's hard to beat seeing the Stanley Cup handed to Carolina's captain after two years in mothballs.