Stanley Cup finals start tonight
RALEIGH, N.C. – The first game of the best of seven Stanley Cup final is slated for tonight in Raleigh, N.C. The Carolina Hurricanes advanced to the final by eliminating Buffalo while Western champ Edmonton knocked out Anaheim.
On the eve of the NHL championship opener Sunday, the Edmonton Oilers were adjusting to the weather down South, where temperatures in the upper 80s felt more like a day at the beach than a skate on a frozen pond.
“We just flew in, so we don’t really have a feel of the atmosphere here,” said Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish, whose team sought an extra day of refuge in New York during an extended layoff before heading North Carolina on Sunday.
The Carolina Hurricanes’ road to the finals, meanwhile, took a detour on Sesame Street. A Muppet-themed ice show at its home arena ó the site of Game 1 on Monday ó forced Carolina to shift practice to the training rink.
Detroit, Denver or Philadelphia this is definitely not.
“It’s a little bit of a different venue here than maybe what is the norm in the Stanley Cup finals,” MacTavish said.
Different is what the NHL wanted when it fought for a new deal with players. Owners demanded a salary cap to ensure that 30 teams could not only survive financially but also have a realistic chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
After a yearlong lockout, two small-market teams are the only ones standing as was the case two years ago when Tampa Bay edged Calgary in Game 7.
“You can’t judge it yet,” Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford said. “You have to wait until three years from now. Edmonton and Carolina are in the finals this year, but there is a very fine line from winning and losing this year. There’s really good teams that missed the playoffs.”
The Oilers did their part in taking out the best one that got in: Edmonton squeaked into the playoffs during the final days of the regular season and then eliminated the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings in six games.
Small market success stories are nice, but they don’t capture much attention in the United States ó where hockey has fallen even further off the map than before the lockout. Television ratings in the first year of deals with cable partner OLN ó which will show Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven series ó and network carrier NBC have been minuscule.
“There’s teams that are more popular in this league such as Detroit and Colorado and probably the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers,” Rutherford said. “But the fact of the matter is when you get into June, it’s basically those two markets that have the most interest whether it’s small markets or big markets.”
After dispatching Detroit, the Oilers knocked out San Jose and Anaheim to become the first No. 8 seed to reach the finals since the league adopted the current postseason format in 1994.
By beating Anaheim in five games, the Oilers have been waiting around for over a week. The layoff will have reached eight days by the time the first puck drops.
“It’s really starting to hit home now that we’re here,” top defenseman Chris Pronger said. “It’s pretty tough when you’re at a neutral site.
“Sometimes you forget how hard it was to get here. We kept kind of picking up steam as we went along and went series-to-series. We’re just harnessing that and getting that edge back and making sure that we’re focused.”
The Hurricanes weren’t a popular preseason pick. Since their surprising run to the 2002 championship round, Carolina hadn’t even made it back to the playoffs.
In his first full season behind the bench, coach Peter Laviolette get his message across quickly. The Hurricanes jumped out to a 14-3-1 mark and established that they were for real.
They never faltered, and had a shot at the top seed in the East until the final day of the season. Carolina settled for second place, but it never hurt them. The Hurricanes didn’t have to face No. 1 Ottawa, so they held home-ice advantage in every round.
Even though the former Hartford Whalers are in the finals for just the second time in franchise history, they are by no means satisfied.
“I don’t think at one point did anybody in our locker room or myself say we want to be conference champs,” Laviolette said.
Edmonton was the epicenter of hockey in the late 1980s, when Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier owned the NHL and the Oilers won five titles in seven years. They are in the finals now for the first time since the last championship in 1990 ó two seasons after Gretzky was traded away in the sport’s biggest deal.
Ryan Smyth, an Alberta native, joined the team he always wanted to play for in 1995 ó less than a year after Edmonton chose him with the sixth pick in the draft. He has spent his entire career there and saw action in only 44 postseason games until this special run.
“We worked hard to get here and we don’t want to pass up this great opportunity,” the 30-year-old forward said. “It takes a long road to get here it doesn’t come very often. I think we’ve got to take full advantage.”
While the Hurricanes still have eight returning players from the 2002 squad, Michael Peca and Dwayne Roloson are the only Oilers with finals experience.
In fact, these teams aren’t even familiar with each other. With a new schedule created to emphasize more local rivalries, the Oilers and Hurricanes didn’t meet this season ó only the second time that has happened to Stanley Cup finalists since 1927.
“I knew they were going to do some damage in the playoffs,” said Hurricanes forward Mark Recchi, making his first finals appearance since winning the Cup with Pittsburgh in 1991. “Obviously, they were fighting to get in but looking at the left side, the two teams that I wouldn’t want to face is Edmonton and San Jose.”
It’s easy to say that now that Carolina isn’t staring at Detroit, Colorado, Calgary or Nashville ó the West’s top four teams who were all knocked out in the first round.
Even the Oilers don’t think they’ll surprise the Hurricanes.
“I don’t think there is any sneaking up at this point,” said Edmonton center Fernando Pasani, who has an NHL-best nine playoff goals. “We know their tendencies, they know ours.”
Stanley Cup finals start tonight