- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2002

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) This is a franchise with a miserable postseason past, the NHL's youngest coach and a collection of players who aren't exactly household names.
No wonder the hockey world is stunned that the Carolina Hurricanes are playing for the Stanley Cup.
At the start of the season, Las Vegas gave 40-1 odds that the Hurricanes would win hockey's top prize. But Carolina will be playing in June, a month when the Bermuda grass is in full bloom on North Carolina's golf courses and the temperature hits the mid-90s.
The Hurricanes, who moved South five seasons ago from Hartford, Conn., won the Eastern Conference championship Tuesday night by beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime, capturing the best-of-7 series 4-2.
The franchise, which gets little national television exposure, was 1-11 in playoff series before beating New Jersey, Montreal and the Maple Leafs this spring. Carolina became the first team since the 1985 Edmonton Oilers to win three straight series on the road.
"When you are in a situation like Detroit, the expectations are there and the only type of emotion you feel is disappointment if you don't get the Cup," said defenseman Aaron Ward, traded by the Red Wings to Carolina in the offseason. "We're put in a situation here where the sky is the limit and nobody sets any standards for us. As we go along it's more exciting to achieve that level of surprise."
About 700 screaming fans greeted the team when it arrived early yesterday at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, while several miles away fans began lining up at 3 a.m. to buy tickets to the Cup finals at the Entertainment and Sports Arena box office.
When the windows opened five hours later, tickets to Games 3, 4, and 6 were sold out in 35 minutes.
"There is tremendous interest here, and the people are so genuinely happy and they feel, rightfully so, that they have a piece of this and are a big part of it," coach Paul Maurice said.
Ward said he was shocked when he turned his radio on at 2 a.m. during his drive home.
"They were giving updates that three lanes were jammed outside of the ESA," Ward said. "I am very impressed with what has gone on here. You can't help but get caught up in the excitement and the emotion of the moment. The fact that our fans are again disregarding their jobs and their families to camp out at 3 and 4 in the morning, that says a lot about what this has done for this city."
Carolina's unexpected march to the Cup finals relied on defense, goaltending and timely scoring. The Hurricanes allowed just 29 goals in 18 playoff games, Arturs Irbe had a 1.41 goals-against average, and 10 different players scored game-winning goals.
One other important component: confidence.
"I guess the thing you learn the most is that winning does a lot more for your team than any speeches, any strategies, any adjustments," the 35-year-old Maurice said. "That belief that you can win, even when it's not going your way, is the critical lesson for us in these playoffs."
Maurice, who came close to being fired in December, said he and others spent time on the team plane reflecting on the franchise's hard times both on the ice and in the stands.
"There were a lot of quiet moments on the plane," Maurice said. "At the front of my seat, there is a TV and a mirror and I just kind of enjoyed watching the guys enjoy it."
"For me, it's more about my staff and the guys that have been in place a long time," Maurice added. "We came to work [yesterday] and smiled at each other. There was a serious lack of tension in the office today, which is a nice change. It will build back up to the normal pitch."
Ward laughed when asked about another wave of media that will converge on Raleigh with questions about the viability of the market, which has gone Cup crazy the last six weeks.
"Now we'll have all the people from the international media, from Japan and Finland, asking where the NASCAR tracks are. We'll re-direct them," Ward said. "If that's the best they've got to make fun of, let's be happy. We're not the murder capital of the world or the worst-dressed place. So we're Mayberry oh well."


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