As we have been doing throughout the playoffs, Paterno Family Professor of Literature at Penn State, distinguished author, and colleague of Dee Dee Ramone Michael Berube and I will discuss the Stanley Cup finals. Because of my trip we’re a little late, so I will start with a preview as I would have written it before the game (reaching the opposite conclusion from Michael), Michael will discuss game 1, and then I will respond with some comments.
Scott’s preview: As the great Bill James said about the ’89 Orioles, it’s fun to believe in Cinderella, but you’ve got to believe in midnight too. The NHL playoffs have served as a demonstration of that principle. Some teams comparable to the poorly regarded, fairly low-seeded Oil have come out of nowhere to make the finals against a well-regarded high seed. And the kicker is that they’ve pretty much all gotten annihilated: the Capitals in ’98, the Panthers in ’96, the North Stars in ’91, and the Canucks in ’82. Harold Snepts’ famous overtime giveaway to Mike Bossy in the latter pretty much summarized these series, which have been about as dramatic as a Presidential election in Utah. So the Hurricanes have a lot of history on their side, which is why you should probably listen to Michael, who likes the Hurricanes in 6. (Not to mention that I mentioned Mike Commodore as a reason not to pick Carolina, and he not only provided steady defense but scored some big goals.) And there’s certainly a lot to like. Starting with the sublime Staal they’re stacked up front–fast, savvy, great hands. I’ve been a fan of Brind’ Amour for a long time–I saw him play a lot during the Olympic previews in ’88, and he really seems to smell what may be his last chance at a cup (incredible faceoff man, too), and Weight (who I desperately wanted the Flames to acquire earlier this year) has also seemed to shave five year of his legs to better showcase his amazing passing touch. Actually, Michael recently pointed out the similarities between this year’s series and the previous one, and the Hurricanes are a lot like the Lightning last year: terrific speed and talent up front, a sufficiently functional and mobile defense, and talented (if erratic) goaltending.
And yet, without meaning to be stubborn, I think the Oilers will manage to avoid the seemingly inevitable pumpkinization. Actually, I think the historical analogies are null, because the Oilers aren’t really an 8 seed. One Cinderella team I didn’t mention was the ’04 Flames, who fought the Lightning to a tough 7-game series. While they were nominally a #6 seed, with Kiprusoff in net the Flames were about as good as any team in the league, and while the previous teams I mentioned generally crawled back into the muck from which they came they were 100-point team the next year although their offense went into the tank. The Oilers are like that, but if anything more so. Between their brutally tough division, Pronger’s slow adjustment to the new league, and the bush-league goaltending they suffered through before acquiring Rolason, the Oilers are a far better team than their regular season record reflects. I certainly don’t see the mismatch on paper you would get if you compared, say, the 81-82 Canucks and 81-2 Islanders. Like Anaheim, the Hurricanes have the single best forward, but as you go through the rosters things look better for the Oilers (although a lot depends on whether you prefer wily, somewhat past-peak veterans or young, pre-peak speed burners; I can certainly see a case for the former in the playoffs.) The ‘Canes have the edge, but it’s far from huge. And unlike Anaheim, the Hurricanes don’t have any Niedermayer to stack up against Pronger; indeed, I don’t think the ‘Canes have a single defenseman who would start in Edmonton’s top 4. Carolina’s goaltending has more upside but isn’t as steady. Ultimately, this may be the difference between a burly stay-at-home defenseman rather than the flashy, high-scoring forward like Michael making the picks, but I think the Oilers are better positioned to take advantage of Carolina’s merely OK defense than the Flames were with respect to the Lightning in ’04. It should be a close series, but I see the first Canadian cup in more than a decade. Oilers in 6.
Michael, after Game 1: The Canes should consider themselves extremely fortunate. They probably don’t; some of them might even be grousing about those two strange penalties they were assessed for “body checking” in the first period. But those penalties didn’t lead to goals. Aaron Ward’s hideous clearing pass did. Yes, I know, the official scoring sheet says that Fernando Pisani scored after Jaroslav Spacek took a shot from the point. But who put the puck right on Spacek’s stick? Ward did. So that’s an assist right there– and it was followed by a goal, when Ethan Moreau’s shot went off Ward’s hip with 3-1/2 minutes left in the second period to give Edmonton a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead. In between, Chris Pronger scored on a penalty shot that was called after Niclas Wallin closed his hand over the puck in his own goal crease. So two goals on Ward’s ledger, one on Wallin’s.
Not to pick on Ward and Wallin, mind you– the entire defensive corps was shaky. The reason Carolina won tonight, despite all the breakdowns on D, is that Cam Ward made three utterly insane saves on Oilers down low, the last one on Shawn Horcoff with three seconds remaining. Rod Brind’amour, meanwhile, scored two of the easiest goals he could possibly have asked for, one on a rebound in the crease with an empty net (making it 3-1 and giving the Canes some life at the end of the second), one on a terrible miscue between backup G Ty Conklin and captain Jason Smith behind the net with a mere thirty seconds on the clock.
There will be more of this wild stuff, to be sure. I can’t wait. But for now, some general observations: one, Carolina dodged a bullet. The Oilers have gotten this far largely because they’ve played so well on the road, and in the last two series they’ve been Shark- and Duck-killers in the Shark tank and the Duck pond. Two, about team names. For the rest of the series I will persist in calling Carolina the “Whalers.” In so doing, of course, I honor their noble Hartford heritage. But I also mark the fact that this first-ever World Hockey Association series is also the first-ever Moby Dick series, in which whalers face off against oilers. Three, OLN play-by-play man Mike Emrick must go. I can’t stand it anymore. There will be a scramble in front of the net, or a brilliant steal and a two-on-one the other way, and Emrick will be nattering on about how a defenseman’s father once gave stuffed potatoes to his son’s high school team before their big conference final in 1985. This will prompt John Davidson to reminisce about how the Edmonton director of player personnel played against that defensemen’s father in the 1984 Winter Olympics before moving on to the International League where he met the young Dwayne Roloson, and . . . and between them, Emrick and Davidson almost missed Ales Hemsky’s stunning goal to tie the game at 4 with six and a half minutes left. It was a power play goal, but neither Emrick nor Davidson mentioned– or, likely, realized– that Staal had gotten a two-minute minor and that there were, indeed, more Oilers than Hurricanes on the ice at the time.
Scott and I stand ready to replace Emrick and Davidson. Scott is a brilliant analyst, and I talk quickly. You can reach us at this blog.
Scott adds: That was an amazing game, wasn’t it? (While I have some affection for JD, I can’t disagree about the broadcasting tonight; it sounded like particularly sentimental baseball announcers in the 7th inning of a 14-0 game in April, as if there was a a lot of dead time that needed filling with random anecdotes rather than the rollercoaster ride that was actually happening.) As Michael says, the first half of the game went according to my script: a shaky, mistake-prone Carolina defense under siege against the speedy Oilers forwards, and the ‘Canes scorers unable to mount a consistent attack against the formidable Oiler D. (And a defenseman scoring on a penalty shot!) And then the game turned on a dime: the Oilers looking callow and disoriented, the ‘Canes combining the speed of youth with the playmaking and sniping ability of veterans (Ray Whitney has always been incredibly underrated, hasn’t he?) An short-handed goal to complete the comeback. And then the potentially series-changing idiotic penalty taken by Staal, after which the Oilers’ PP finally clicked. And then, of course, the series-changing moment, with the injury to Rolason. Sometimes a young goaltender will come in and play over his head, but the hapless Conklin immediately spit out the bit with bad puckhandling (while Ward made an incredible save with 3 seconds left.) If he doesn’t play–and if I understand he won’t–the series I think is effectively over; we’re back to the Oilers being a legitimate #8 seed, and we know how that usually goes. (I’m rooting for Carolina–rivalry trumps patriotism for me–but I would hate to see them win like this.) Even if he plays, you have to be impressed with the ‘Canes comeback, although both teams have showed remarkable resilience. Let’s just hope we get a couple more games like this. If this can’t get some more people in Carolina away from the circling cars, nothing will…