- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

RALEIGH, N.C. — This time, the Stanley Cup gets to stay on Tobacco Road.

A couple of low-scoring Carolina defensemen put Edmonton’s comeback on ice and Cam Ward stopped nearly everything that came his way, giving the Hurricanes their first NHL championship with a 3-1 victory in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals last night.

Aaron Ward and Frantisek Kaberle found the net for the Hurricanes — a couple of unlikely players to carry the offense, considering they were each six-goal scorers during the regular season and had combined for only four in the playoffs.

Then there’s the guy who made sure two goals were enough. Cam 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).

“I mean, this is a dream come true,” Ward said. “I couldn’t be with a better group of guys. They definitely deserve it.”

Justin Williams finished off the Oilers, scoring an open-net goal with 1:01 left after Edmonton had cut the lead in half early in the third period.

Edmonton defenseman Chris Pronger, a stalwart throughout the series, gave up the puck in the Carolina zone and wound up making a helpless dive to block Williams’ gimme into the goal.

Bret Hedican, among a contingent of 30-something Carolina players who had never won the cup, leaped in the air after Williams’ shot went in. The crowd of nearly 19,000, which stood throughout the game, went into a frenzy.

“We want the cup!” they chanted over and over.

They got it, bringing the trophy to territory best known for college basketball.

“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.”

It paid off, too, for captain Rod Brind’Amour, Glen Wesley, Doug Weight and Ray Whitney. Along with Hedican, they had been in the league for a total of 78 seasons without winning the cup.

Now, they’ll all have their names on it.

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. Few fans turned up in the beginning and the upper deck was curtained off, the demand for tickets so light.

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, making it all the way to the final game of the season after barely getting into the playoffs.

Fernando Pisani did it again for Edmonton, scoring his playoff-leading 14th goal just more than a minute into the third to make a game of it, and goalie Jussi Markkanen had another strong game with 25 saves.

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 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.

Appropriately enough, the captain was the first one to get the cup. Brind’Amour broke down in tears of joy as he lifted it up.

“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.

Erik Cole delivered a big hit at center ice to force Edmonton into a turnover, and Matt Cullen took off the other way with the puck. He swept in on Markkanen, who made a good save off his chest.

The Hurricanes didn’t let up, keeping Edmonton bottled up in its own zone. Mark Recchi got possession behind the net and attempted a pass to Andrew Ladd standing in front, only to have the ricochet back to Aaron Ward moving in from the point.

That worked out just fine for Carolina. The defenseman delivered a slap shot that skidded through a half-dozen players scrumming in front of the net and on through the legs of Markkanen, who appeared to be screened.

It was the Hurricanes’ first goal in 95:01 since the second period of Game 5.

Carolina thought it had another goal in the final seconds of the period. Brind’Amour flipped a pass to Craig Adams, who fanned on his first shot but then backhanded the puck off Markkanen’s stick.

The goalie fell facefirst to the ice, the puck spinning over him and toward the post. Defenseman Steve Staios dove into the net and stuck out his right glove in an attempt to keep the puck out.

It was hard to tell exactly where the puck was on most of the replays, but one angle appeared to show the puck sliding under Staios and just across the goal line. However, the officials ruled that play was dead as soon as Staios struck the puck with his hand since a delayed penalty had been called on Edmonton’s Ethan Moreau — a huge break for the Oilers with 4.1 seconds left in the period.

Carolina finally made it 2-0 with just over four minutes gone in the second. Kaberle fired a slap shot over a diving 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.

Pisani gave the Oilers hope at 1:03 in the third, crashing the net to knock in a loose puck after Cam Ward had already made one save and turned aside a rebound try.

Edmonton was the first eighth-seeded team to reach the finals under the current format, knocking off three higher-ranked teams — including regular-season champ Detroit — along the way.

The Oilers were in the finals for the first time since 1990, when they won their fifth cup in seven years. For most of the ‘80s, Edmonton was the center of the hockey world with star-studded teams led by Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr.

But spiraling salaries and changing economics sent the Oilers into a tailspin, putting their very future in doubt. Now, in the first season of the new salary cap-protected NHL, they made a title run with a blue-collar team featuring few big names.

But Edmonton failed in its bid to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada for the first time since Montreal’s championship in 1993.

Instead, the cup is remaining in Dixie. Tampa Bay won in 2004 and now the trophy belongs to Carolina after an entire season was lost to a lockout.

Country rocker Toby Keith’s hit “How do You Like Me Now?” blared out in the arena as the Hurricanes passed around the cup.

A fan held up a sign, “Hockey, The New Southern Sport.”


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