Once upon a time, a tortoise challenged a hare to a series of
hockey games. The hare said, "You're kidding, eh? I've got it
all. I'm headed to the Bunny Hall of Fame, and my legendary
coach is already there. I'll sweep the floor with you." The
tortoise wasn't very experienced, but it had an ace up its
carapace--the neutral-zone trap. The tortoise would turn the
series into an obstacle course, grab some fur to rein in the
hare, and if the hare was napping, the tortoise might do some
damage and win a couple of matches. This is a bedtime version of
the 2002 Stanley Cup finals between the Detroit Red Wings (hare)
and the Carolina Hurricanes (tortoise), and it raises one
question: Are the Hurricanes capable of turning what appears to
be a mismatch into a competitive series?
The Cup finals will not be a skillathon, like Detroit's epic
seven-game victory over the Colorado Avalanche in the Western
Conference finals ("the best series you've ever seen," Brett
Hull of the Red Wings said afterward), but a series in which
there will be few goals and fewer style points. By committing to
a 1-2-2 forecheck that forces an abundance of turnovers, and by
tidying up rebounds that goalie Arturs Irbe occasionally leaves
like crumbs along a fairy-tale trail, the Hurricanes can make
heavily favored Detroit sweat. Even during their series against
the Avalanche, the Red Wings were aware of Carolina, having
watched the Hurricanes gradually dismantle the Toronto Maple
Leafs in six games in the Eastern Conference finals. "Me and
Steve watched a few of the Carolina games together," Hull says
of captain Steve Yzerman. "We looked at each other and said,
'These guys are a whale of a team--pardon the pun.' [The
Carolina franchise used to be the Hartford Whalers, until it
moved in 1997.] They're young. They're strong. They're
enthusiastic. They're disciplined." This is no goober hockey team.
Carolina is only a figurative tortoise, especially on the wings.
Sami Kapanen, second-line rookie revelation Erik Cole and
mainstay Jeff O'Neill are quick enough to back off the Detroit
defense, which survived a few shaky moments early against the
Avalanche. None of the Hurricanes forwards, however, are
game-breakers in the way Yzerman, Hull and Sergei Fedorov are
for the Wings. Using the trap is fine, but no team since the
1995 New Jersey Devils has won a Cup thriving on turnovers
alone. Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward, who was a regular for
Detroit from 1996-97 through 2000-01 and could have changed his
first name to Damn considering the abuse he took from coach
Scotty Bowman, has not seen this much talent coming at him on a
regular basis since practices in Detroit last year. Ward, who
was traded to the Hurricanes, will have to contend with an even
more powerful arsenal now: Last summer the Wings added Hull and
590-goal scorer Luc Robitaille.
The pressure will fall on the 35-year-old Irbe, literally the
last man standing. In a universe of butterfly goaltenders, Irbe
is the only netminder who still stands up, plays angles and
kicks out rebounds. For him every night is That '70s Show. He's
so old-fashioned, he patches his own equipment. Irbe's gear,
especially the trademark white pads that repel pucks as if they
were Flubber, is older than some of Toronto coach Pat Quinn's
grudges. "Archie looks at it this way," says Carolina's
goaltending consultant Don Edwards. "You have an old pair of
shoes, they feel comfortable. Why switch to a new pair when the
old ones still fit?" Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice did some
switching of his own early in the postseason, yanking a shaky
Irbe in mid-game during consecutive first-round losses to the
Devils and replacing him with backup Kevin Weekes. "I was low
for a brief moment," Irbe says. "Then I said, 'Screw it.' What
can you do? I wasn't going to lose any more sleep."
The benching--or "adjustment," as the Carolina coaches prefer to
call it--did Irbe wonders, even if he's loath to admit it.
Maurice reinserted Irbe in Game 4 of the conference semifinals
against the Montreal Canadiens soon enough that his confidence
was not shattered. His play against Toronto, in which he allowed
only six goals, none of them during five-on-five, compares
favorably with his performance in leading the San Jose Sharks to
a colossal first-round upset of Detroit in 1994. "They have very
strong goaltending in Irbe," Wings associate coach Dave Lewis
says. "He's almost invincible at times."
The first appearance in the finals for the Hurricanes was a
vindication for Maurice, who was 19 in 1986 when the franchise
last won a playoff series. He's the NHL's youngest coach--in his
seventh season at the helm, he's also second in tenure behind
Scotty Bowman, who's been with the Wings for nine years--a
survivor worthy of his own show. Maurice's job was hanging by a
thread last December after Carolina lost four straight games
(one was an overtime defeat) by a combined score of 19-7. But
the Hurricanes won in Florida on Dec. 8, starting a streak of
four wins in five games. Maurice, whose teams had won only four
playoff games in his first six years and who was atop
everybody's next-coach-to-be-fired list, solidified his job and
found a way to implant the seed of defensive accountability and
make it the hallmark of a team that had been searching for an
identity for years.
The Hurricanes' charge through the East--they won six of nine
road games (including all three Game 6s) and six of seven
overtime matches--was not a shock as much as a reaffirmation of
the system and of the young talent brought in by general manager
Jim Rutherford. "This is not just a team that's going to be good
for a short stand," says center Rod Brind'Amour. "We've got a
chance to always be good."
The Carolina draft of 1998 won't rank with the alltime haul the
Wings made in '89--Fedorov, the NHL's MVP in '93-94; Nicklas
Lidstrom, who won the Norris Trophy last season; hard-hitting
elite defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov (he retired after a
debilitating limo accident six days after Detroit won the Cup in
'97); and three others still in the league--but it laid a solid
foundation with forwards Cole, Josef Vasicek, Tommy Westlund,
Jaroslav Svoboda and its No. 1 pick, Jeff Heerema. Heerema, who
was dominant while playing for Lowell of the American Hockey
League this season, is expected to compete for a job on one of
Carolina's top two lines in 2002-03.
Cole, as part of the BBC line with Brind'Amour and Bates
Battaglia, has been the playoff prize, a blossoming power winger
with speed and an unfettered willingness to crash the crease.
"That Cole," says Wings defenseman Mathieu Dandenault, "likes to
get his nose dirty." Cole, 23, could be a 30-goal linchpin
within two seasons, but he's not the most talented young
Hurricanes forward. Svoboda, 22, has a chance to be an elite
sniper, filling Carolina's most pressing need. Svoboda, who
wasn't recalled from the minors until March, has the best hands
on the team and can stickhandle in a phone booth. With the 6'4",
200-pound Vasicek, 21, eventually developing into a No. 1 center
and 21-year-old defenseman David Tanabe, an Astaire on skates
who has not played since breaking his right wrist in Round 1,
Carolina will no longer be a playoff interloper but a postseason
fixture. "Look at that  draft," Ward says. "It's one of
those things that you have to be impressed with. A lot of times
teams try to replace components with players they buy."
The bad old days of Hurricanes hockey, when the radio broadcast
of a Detroit-Carolina game in 1999 was aired on tape delay
because East Carolina was playing in the Mobile Alabama Bowl,
are history, as fans flock to the sport that is the NASCAR of
the North. They might need a rabbit's foot against a team with
nine future Hall of Fame players, but in any case, the
Hurricanes have come out of their shell.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO ICE STORM Having disposed of the Avalanche, Steve Duchesne and the Red Wings take on another force of nature, the Hurricanes (page 50). [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY LOU CAPOZZOLA ROUND 4 Carolina forward O'Neill is one of the few top-notch goal scorers for the defensive-minded Hurricanes.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID E. KLUTHO (3) ON THE FIRING LINE The Red Wings' lineup, deep in scoring threats, is led by Yzerman (19), Lidstrom (5) and Hull.
COLOR PHOTO: KEVIN FRAYER/AP HISTORY LESSON Either Irbe (top) or Hasek will be the first European starting goaltender to win the Stanley Cup.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA HAT'S OFF Rookie sensation Cole, who had six goals in the first three rounds, crashed the crease like a veteran.
Irbe is the last goalie who still stands up, plays angles and
kicks out rebounds.