19 June 2006

2006 Stanley Cup wrapup

The first season in the so-called “New NHL” has just ended in thrilling style, with the Stanley Cup final going seven games and the Carolina Hurricanes wrapping up the 2006 title last night, with a 3-1 win. A widely unpredictable series throughout, it took many twists and turns – let’s take a quick look back at the first six games…

Game one saw the Oilers shoot out to a 3-0 lead and look dominant, until late in the 2nd when they began to falter. The Canes tied it quickly in the 3rd, and late in the game knocked Oilers’ goalie Dwayne Roloson out of the playoffs in a goalmouth scramble. In an almost predictable followup, rusty Oiler backup Ty Conklin miscommunicated with defenceman Jason Smith, leading to a virtual empty-net goal by Rod BrindAmour with under a minute left to give Carolina a stunning opening game win of 5-4. Perhaps the shocking double-loss of both the game and their starting goalie was in part a reason for Edmonton getting blown out in game two by the score of 5-0 on the strength of three power play goals. Jussi Markkanen took over as Edmonton’s starting goalie and was much better than the final score would indicate, as the Oilers left him hanging all night.

It was back to Edmonton for game three and a must-win situation for the hometown Oilers, looking for their first Stanley Cup since they won their fifth in seven years in 1990. A tight 2-1 victory, won by a hard-won (and controversial) late goal by Ryan Smyth gave Oiler fans hope that they could even the series at home in game four…but the Canes came back and won a hard-fought battle by a 2-1 score, impressing everyone watching and leaving no doubt who the better team had been to that point. It was on to Raleigh to clinch the Cup.

Yet the Oilers showed why they belonged in this Cup final in game five. A quick lead 16 seconds into the game quickly evaporated as the first period turned into the wildest and most entertaining of the finals. Carolina scored two to take a lead, but the Oilers came right back with two of their own to take a 3-2 lead after one. Eric Staal scored his second of the night in the second and then the Canes withstood a furious Edmonton attack in the 3rd period but no goals meant…overtime. A chance for the Canes to take the Cup with just one goal. And it looked inevitable when Steve Staios was whistled for tripping early in the overtime period. The Oilers, however, generated a very aggressive forecheck which led to the now-seen-1000-times overtime shorthanded goal by Edmonton hometown hero Fernando Pisani (the first overtime shorthanded goal in Cup Finals history).

Game six was highly anticipated as the Oilers had shown great life and spirit in staving off elimination in game five, and they utterly dominated the Canes back in Edmonton on Saturday night. A 4-0 victory that wasn’t really that close (Cam Ward made the save of the playoffs in the second period off an Oiler three on one break) led the franchise – and the nation of Canada – to believe that the Oilers could do what only one team in history has done: come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals to win the Cup.

Much like the Calgary Flames in 2004, the 2006 Edmonton Oilers have temporarily become “Canada’s Team.” There hasn’t been a Canadian-based team to win the Stanley Cup since Montreal won in 1993 and the First Nation of Hockey always seems to rally around their best chance to bring the Cup back (although I seriously doubt any such Western Canadian love would be shown to the Leafs if they were ever to find their way to the Finals…).

Last Saturday night I spent the evening at Peel’s Pub in downtown Montreal, watching game six with a few hundred hockey fans. With each hit, rush, and inevitable Edmonton goal the amount of cheering and high-fiving between tables made one think that it was the hometown Canadiens in the Finals rather than the distant Oilers. I find it not to be a negative sentiment – nothing against American teams – but rather almost a greater or larger sense of Canadian community. I have little doubt that had there been more Canadian Cup-winning teams over the past 13 years there would be less of a “last Canadian team standing” mantra.

So this all led to last night’s fantastic game seven – the grand finale for the 2006 season.

The Hurricanes came out stronger than they had since game 4, and it took the Oilers about seven or eight minutes to find their legs – they withstood a fierce emotional start by Carolina, accented by Aaron Ward’s goal through a screen of about 36 players. Frank Kaberle made it 2-0 on a deflected slapper early in the second and it looked like trouble for Edmonton, but to their credit once again they stayed strong. However a big chance was lost late in the second – they had the chance to spend nearly two minutes on a 5-on-3 when Aaron Ward cleared the puck over the boards in his own end. The Oilers set up quickly and moved the puck around the perimeter but I have to find some blame with Ales Hemsky - a vastly talented stickhandler who has often been criticized for not shooting enough – Hemsky blew it by not playing the puck with confidence or aggression. He had control a few times on the advantage but never got a shot or a good pass off, and his hesitation directly led to a penalty by the Oilers, effectively nullifying the golden opportunity.

But once again, the Oilers were given life by – who else – Fernando Pisani. His goal early in the third was a momentum shifter. The fierce attack by all three members of that line - Raffi Torres, Rem Murray, Pisani) put the Canes back on their heels on that shift which ended when Mark Recchi didn’t mark the hard-charging Pisani who buried the rebound.

After the goal the Oilers were charged – looking much like the team that dominated the later stages of game five and all of game six. Heavy forechecking from their smaller forwards like Michael Peca and Sergei Samsonov began to take its toll on the Canes defence. They started to out skate the trap that Carolina had put in place midway through the game by simply beating them to the puck in the Canes’ defensive zone.

Aside: what a great hipcheck by Chris Pronger in the 3rd period – cleanly done along the boards – truly a lost art, as too many “hip checks” today are really dangerous knee-on-knee hits.

But despite the pressure and forechecking by Edmonton, they could not capitalize where it mattered, coming closest on a power play and later when Pisani was denied late in the third on yet another amazing save by Cam Ward – following up a rush by Torres who got a shot off, Pisani didn’t get everything on the rebound but Ward’s quickness moving to his left saved the game for Carolina. Edmonton pulled Markannen with about a minute and a half left to no avail, as Justin Williams scored an empty netter to clinch the Hurricanes’ first Stanley Cup.

I was pleased to see Cam Ward win the Conn Smythe award, as he was easily the most deserving choice. His story is truly amazing - without Cam Ward it’s possible the Canes get swept by Montreal in the first round. Lest we forget what happened so many weeks ago, back in round one Martin Gerber was Carolina’s starting goalie and had problems in losing the first two game to the Canadiens. Enter Cam Ward, and the Canes win the next four games of the series. Fast forward to the Buffalo series, and one save in particular sticks out – overtime of the pivotal game five, a brilliant skate save on the Sabres’ Jochen Hecht prevents Buffalo from taking a stranglehold on the series before returning to Buffalo for game six.

Cam Ward kept the Hurricanes alive during those few points in the playoffs where the team broke down in front of him, and was truly the best player overall in the postseason.

It had been a long and mostly mediocre history for the Carolina/Hartford franchise since entering the NHL in 1979. As one of the four teams selected from the defunct World Hockey Association to join the NHL, they were often looked on as a misplaced franchise, halfway between Boston and New York City. But make no mistake, the Whalers had diehard fans in Connecticut – the reason for their franchise shift to North Carolina a decade ago wasn’t because of a poor fanbase – the Whalers were consistently a poorly run team on the ice, leading to season after season of that dead zone of not-quite-awfulness which both doesn’t advance you in the playoffs and rarely gets you that blue-chip prospect in the draft (exception: Chris Pronger, whom they dealt away to St. Louis).

The Canes made it as far as the finals in 2002, but lost to the Detroit Red Wings in five games in what was seen as a bit of a fluke. This season was different – they dominated the Southeast division all year and ended up only a point behind Ottawa for the best record in the Eastern Conference. They defeated Montreal in six and New Jersey in five games before outlasting an injury-depleted Sabres team in seven to reach the Finals. This franchise has come a long way since winning the inaugural WHA Avco Cup in 1972 – and now has reached the ultimate pinnacle - congratulations to the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes – Stanley Cup Champions.

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