Monday, June 19, 2006

Game 7 Preview

It’s a cliché, but it now all comes down to this.

The Edmonton Oilers forced a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final with a convincing 4-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes at Rexall Place in Edmonton in Game 6 on Saturday night. Jussi Markkanen stopped 16 shots for his first career playoff shutout as Edmonton won for the second straight game after being down 3-1 in the series with Game 5 in Raleigh.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Oilers looked all but out after No. 1 goaltender Dwayne Roloson injured his knee late in Game 1 with the score tied at 4 and after Markkanen was shelled in Game 2 after a deflating 5-0 win by Carolina that gave the Hurricanes a 2-0 series lead. Doubts could still be heard even after Edmonton took Game 3 by the thinnest of margins- 2-1- and not even their Game 5 victory could be considered resounding, as it was essentially a lucky play that led to Fernando Pisani’s game-winning goal in overtime that kept Edmonton’s hopes alive.

That all changed in Game 6, and suddenly this series has a completely different flavour. While the prognosticators would tell you otherwise (mainly because I think most of them simply watched the Oilers and never saw the Hurricanes like I did), it was Carolina who were strongly favoured to win this year’s Cup. After all, Carolina did show a lot of heart in barely overcoming the evenly-matched Buffalo Sabres in the seven-game Eastern Conference Final and had won eight of nine- including the last four games against the Montreal Canadiens after blowing the first two games on home ice- just to get there. I knew all along that it was Carolina’s Cup to lose, and through the first five games of the Stanley Cup Final, I was right.

Then Edmonton, who had yet to win a game convincingly in these finals, finally did so in Game 6 through the heart and determination they’d been showing all year. For the first time since the Sabres won Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final 4-3, the Hurricanes were truly beaten and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Twice Carolina have had a chance to wrap up their first ever Stanley Cup triumph- in considerably easier circumstances than in their previous appearance in the 2002 Final against the Detroit Red Wings- and twice they failed to convert. Their collapse is quickly becoming one of epic proportions, since a team that was once so dominant in this series suddenly searches for answers in a game they shouldn’t be playing. Now, don’t get me wrong- these Oilers are the real deal and have gotten where they are now through merit and not through luck. You don’t win two straight games with your backs to the wall without being good and Edmonton are good. However, until Game 6 I had doubts about whether or not the Cinderella Oilers could overcome the dominant Hurricanes, since Edmonton had yet to truly beat the Hurricanes in these finals until then.

Probably the best way to explain Carolina’s collapse is the fact that they were one win away from the Cup paralysed the Hurricanes. While it’s true their veteran leadership has helped them overcome many obstacles in these playoffs, none of their players had ever played a key role in his team’s Stanley Cup victory. Aaron Ward was a key cog in the Detroit blueline in the 1997 and 1998 Red Wing Cup triumphs, but Ward was mainly a support player and never a central figure. Likewise, Cory Stillman was a non-factor in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup triumph, and while he had been previously showing the Lightning they were silly in letting him go last summer, after his Game 5 gaffe in overtime that led to Pisani’s goal it now looks like Tampa Bay is having the last laugh. Rod Brind’amour has been to two Cup Finals previously but lost them both, four straight as a member of the 1997 Philadelphia Flyers and in five games in the outclassed 2002 Carolina outfit. Bret Hedican was also a member of that 2002 outfit, and, after taking too many penalties in Game 6, is showing he also doesn’t know what to do when his team has a chance to win it all. Finally, we get to Mark Recchi, who won the Cup in 1991 with the Pittsburgh Penguins and was a key member in that run, but that was in a bygone era with considerably different circumstances. He has never won anything of significance recently and certainly nothing in a leadership role like he is here in Carolina, and his disappearing act in these Finals is exposing that.

Of course, for their part it’s not like the Oilers are swimming in a sea of winning experience. Edmonton has two players who have been to a Cup Final- Michael Peca and Roloson were members of the 1999 Sabres Finals team- but has no one that has actually won a Cup (the last two players who were key figures in their team’s Stanley Cup campaigns- Buffalo’s Chris Drury who won with the 2001 Colorado Avalanche and Anaheim Mighty Duck Scott Niedermayer who won with the 1995, 2000 and 2003 New Jersey Devils- were eliminated in the last round). Most of the team in fact are playing beyond the first round for the first time in their careers and are essentially where they are right now because of superior determination. Having said that, Edmonton does have a winner both behind the bench and in the front office in the form of former key cogs in previous Edmonton Stanley Cup triumphs in Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe respectively and thus know how to win (MacTavish also having the added distinction of being the player who won the defensive-zone face-off in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final that sealed the deal for the New York Rangers). In this respect anyway, Edmonton has the edge, but only slightly.

Prediction: This is a toss-up. While it’s true that Carolina does have a Game 7 experience in these playoffs- winning a 4-2 nail-biter against Buffalo in the Eastern Conference Final- this is an entirely different animal. This is the final game of the National Hockey League season with absolutely everything on the line- the Stanley Cup is literally within your grasp, with just one final hurdle to climb to reach it. It’s not like if you lose you know you simply won’t be playing in the next series- you lose knowing that you literally came within inches of the grand prize and need one whole year of battling to get to that point again. So throw out that previous Game 7 for the Hurricanes, because it’s useless.

In fact, just about everything we’ve come to know about either team is essentially useless. Normally, I would say that it is in these pressure-cooker situations where Edmonton is best, because they’ve shown time and again that they play great under pressure. However, like I said before, there’s just no comparison to this kind of pressure. Nobody playing in this Game 7 has ever played in a Stanley Cup Final Game 7, so this literally is unknown territory for everyone- writers, fans, coaches and players alike- involved.

On paper, you’d have to like Carolina’s chances, because the Hurricanes have superior talent. They had the better regular season and, despite Markkanen’s heroics, they have the better goaltender in Cam Ward. Still, there’s a lot of question marks going into this one. First of all, yes Ward is unflappable (everyone loves to use that word to describe him), but this will literally be the biggest game of his life and it’s anyone’s guess about how he’ll turn out. Still, everyone said Ward would wilt against New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur, whom he idolized, and he didn’t, so there’s a chance he can come through again in Game 7. Second of all, the Hurricanes have a lot of question marks when it comes to heart- losing two straight while literally being so close to their prize is a different kind of adversity than simply being down 2-0 to Montreal and having to play Games 3 and 4 on the road. Sure, the ’Canes can use the 1994 Rangers- who won despite blowing a 3-1 series lead themselves- as inspiration, but the 1994 Rangers had bigger things to play for, namely their first Cup since 1941, and Carolina doesn’t have a similar goal, since they don’t have a glory they’re looking to return to. For them to win, Carolina’s big guns, namely Eric Staal, Brind’amour and Stillman have all fired blanks and need to get going again, plus the Hurricanes defence has to get back to the steady role they played in the first five games of the series and not blow anymore defensive zone coverage- both of Edmonton’s power play goals came off breaks in the Carolina zone, with Ryan Smyth’s goal coming off a rush towards the net and Shawn Horcoff’s goal coming off a two-on-one in the defensive zone. Hedican has to stop taking penalties and again be Carolina’s top defenseman, because the ’Canes sorely missed his presence out there. If the ’Canes have anything going for them it’s their home crowd, which should help energize them like the Rexall crowd did for Edmonton in Game 6.

For their part, the Oilers have to continue playing the way they usually do- with a lot of heart and determination. MacTavish has them believing they can’t lose and they need to keep doing that here. “Mac-T” is the better of the two coaches here and his competitive edge is what is keeping the Oilers in this series. Chris Pronger has to again be his dominant self, and if he can do what he did in Game 5- scoring a goal right off the opening face-off- the Oilers will be laughing. Peca has to again get going after being invisible in Game 6 as well as the explosive Ales Hemsky and Sergei Samsonov, who can draw on the inspiration of seeing Horcoff, Smyth and Pisani getting their games back on track. Markkanen has to again play the game of his life, and he does have the fact that he’s getting better as the series progresses going for him. However, while Edmonton looks to be in the diver’s seat here, playing with a lot of confidence and looking stronger as the series progresses, they’ll need to continue playing their high confidence, determined game in the unpredictable, pressure-filled setting of Game 7, which will be a new challenge for each of these Oilers. They cannot get overconfident and believe that this series is over- their previous victories mean nothing now if they can’t convert in Raleigh. There are also questions about how much longer they can play at this level of intensity- asking anyone to win three straight to claim the Stanley Cup after being in a 3-1 hole is a lot to ask, and it’s telling that no one has done it since the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs against Detroit, who were, interestingly enough, one of the only two teams who have ever come back to win a series being 3-0 down. The Oilers may enjoy overcoming hurdles, but this is a hurdle that’s considerably different than any other they’ve ever encountered.

Still, if I had to pick a winner, it’d be Edmonton, but only barely. Whenever it comes down to a battle of wits- which is what this contest will come down to- it always comes out in Edmonton’s favour, and this is no different. The Hurricanes showed through their inability to convert two previous chances to claim the series that the pressure is paralysing them, and Edmonton is the kind of team that pounces on that kind of opportunity- in Round 2 against the San Jose Sharks the Oilers were all over the Sharks after Vesa Toskala’s famous Game 4 gaffe that tied the game for the severely outclassed Oilers and helped Edmonton eventually crush San Jose for a 6-3 win. San Jose, deflated, were never the same again and Edmonton pounced on their frustration, ending their misery in two more dominant performances to wrap up the series in six. The same situation has the potential to happen here, as the wheels are definitely falling off the Carolina wagon. Stillman’s gaffe in Game 5 was innocent then but is now looming large, and it will be Edmonton who will make them pay for that mistake and claim their first Cup since 1990.

Final Result: Edmonton 2, Carolina 1 (3OT)

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