- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2002

DETROIT Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice is three wins away from the Stanley Cup. Many consider it remarkable that the Hurricanes are here at all without buying tickets in the bleachers, but for Maurice, it is truly a remarkable turn from what almost was.
In early December, the Hurricanes had gone from four games above .500 to break even. The front office had decided that if the season was going to be rescued, it was better to make a coaching move before Christmas rather than let the agony drag on. Nothing was said, there was no notice tacked to the door, but everybody knew Carolina had to win its next game or Maurice was gone.
It was a very pleasant holiday season in Raleigh, N.C., as it turned out. The 'Canes beat Florida 3-2 and lost only one of the next dozen (there were two point-producing overtime losses). Maurice beat the hangman before speculation even started on his successor.
"It's about time that he starts taking a little credit for our success," said Carolina captain Ron Francis, the veteran of 22 NHL seasons, winner of two Stanley Cup rings and four years older than his boss. "There's no question that he has a huge part of why we're sitting in the position we're in.
"It's unfortunate that every season at some point he's rumored to be fired and it sure was no different in December. I thought it was a good sign for our hockey club when that game came about that [we] responded and played extremely well. I think it said a lot about how we feel about him and I think it gave him a lot of confidence to know that the team certainly respected his abilities."
The feeling is mutual.
Asked if he could talk about how much Francis brings to the team, Maurice responded: "Not in one press conference."
They are in some ways the very opposite of the odd couple. They were both born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, went to the same high school but never met until Francis rejoined the franchise four years ago, three years after Maurice took over as the youngest head coach in NHL history at 28. There was instant rapport, a non-verbal communication that continues to this day. And they are the biggest boosters of each other.
"For what Ron Francis has meant to this team, he has also meant the same to me as a coach," Maurice said. "As well as he handles any of the other players, he handles [me] just as well. He knows exactly I have a tendency to get a little grumbly sometimes what to say. 'It's a pretty good day today' or 'Let's go have a good time today.' He knows exactly the right words to say. Just like with you, he never throws his greatness in your face and that's what makes him invaluable."
If you're taking notes, you have to look up to make sure which one is speaking.
"We're not so much concerned about what is happening on the other side, we're really concerned with ourselves and our locker room and being ready to play and play our system as well as we can," said Francis yesterday, sounding exactly like a coach.
Carolina's philosophy, it's system, is what got the 'Canes to within three wins of the NHL championship, as unlikely a story as there is going to be in this league for a very long time. It is a system that operates around a trapping defense and a soundness in one game plan tonight's not the one that got you a win yesterday or the one that's still on the drawing board.
"It's no different for us from any other series," Francis said when asked about preparing to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. "We have tried to prepare ourselves for every series with the mentality that we're preparing to play seven games and want to focus on the task at hand. Before [Tuesday], our focus was on Game1. Now that's behind us and our focus has to be on Game2. We don't want to look forward or behind, we try to stay in the present and mentally prepare for the task at hand. Right now, that's Game2."


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