One thing you can say about the Stanley Cup Finals before the first puck is dropped is that they'll feature the best uniform matchup in years. The Detroit Red Wings' road uniform -- all red, with that winged-wheel design on the front of the sweater -- is the best in all of sports, and the Carolina Hurricanes look good too in their red, white and black suits, bucking the apparent rule for new teams of the last decade in all sports to use teal, purple, some variation of bronze or all of the above in their outfits.
Not since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens beat the Los Angeles Kings, who hadn't yet gone from their cool black and silver uniforms to their current ugly purple ones -- with the lions? yeesh -- have the Stanley Cup Finals been so sartorially smart. (Well, '95, when the New Jersey Devils beat Detroit, wasn't so bad, but the Devils lose points because the part of their logo that's supposed to look like a devil's horns looks like a monkey wrench.)
I'm talking about uniforms because what is there to say about a series between the most dominant team in hockey and ... have you seen those Hurricanes uniforms? They're really so much nicer than those ugly Colorado Avalanche suits.
The Red Wings are coming off a Game 7 thrashing of the Avalanche in the semifinals, a 7-0 embarrassment that was the dud anticlimax -- for those of us who don't live in Detroit -- of a classic series. The Avs, the defending champs, looked to be the clear second favorite in the West. They were the second seed, finishing just ahead of the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues in the regular season, but they did that without Peter Forsberg, a brilliant playoff performer who sat out the regular season to nurse various injuries.
The Avalanche-Red Wings series couldn't have been any closer, or any more entertaining. In the first six games, eight of the 18 regulation periods ended with the score tied, and another eight ended with one team leading by one goal. Three games went to overtime. The goaltending, by Colorado's Patrick Roy and Detroit's Dominik Hasek, was superlative.
The Wings' four-goal outburst in the first period of Game 7 against Roy, arguably the greatest goaltender of all time, will go down in history as one of those inexplicable sports moments. How can Roy and the Avalanche have picked that moment to have one of those nights? (Interestingly, and similarly, the Hurricanes chased Montreal goalie Jose Theodore, who isn't Patrick Roy but who had a great year and had been red-hot in the playoffs, with five goals in the first period of the clinching Game 6 in the second round.)
If Detroit had won the seventh game 2-0, as they did Game 6, it would be easier to think of them as clearly superior than it is after that anomalous finale. One gets the feeling that if there were an eighth game, the Avalanche would win it.
But there isn't, and now the Red Wings find themselves in the same position as the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals: As champions of the vastly superior Western Conference, they're prohibitive favorites over the Eastern champs, who, in the West, would be just another team, in this case not even a playoff team. The Hurricanes' 91 regular-season points would have put them right behind the Edmonton Oilers, who missed the playoffs by three points. The Red Wings had 116 points, 15 more than anybody else. They won 51 of 82 games. Nobody else won more than 45.
Carolina was only the seventh best team in the East, based on regular-season records. The Hurricanes were 35-26 with 16 ties and five overtime losses, which are each worth a point in the standings. (Victories are worth two points.) But the 'Canes earned the third seed in the Eastern playoffs by way of winning the colossally weak Southeast Division.
All that means is that the Hurricanes didn't have to face the banged-up Toronto Maple Leafs, the second-best team in the East in the regular season, until they were even more banged up in the third round, instead of right off the bat. The top two seeds in the East, the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers, went down in the first round, leaving Carolina with home-ice advantage through the semis. But let's not take anything away from them. The Hurricanes beat the two-time defending conference champs, the Devils, plus the surging Canadiens and the gritty Leafs with a stifling (and, let's face it, less than exciting) trapping defense and solid goaltending from Arturs Irbe and, for a few games early on, backup Kevin Weekes.
The Hurricanes are led offensively by their BBC Line, and friends, the art of naming lines -- Million Dollar Line, Punch Line, Production Line, etc. -- is in a sad state when most line names are derived from the three players' initials. The Flyers' Legion of Doom a few years ago was nice, but let's work on this, hockey people. Anyway, the BBC Line, center Rod Brind'Amour and wings Bates Battaglia and Erik Cole, is complemented by team captain Ron Francis, a 21-year veteran, leading goal scorer Jeff O'Neill and three solid tandems of defensemen.
The 'Canes play a grinding style, and if they have any hope of beating Detroit, they'll have to win face-offs, avoid turnovers and penalties and somehow sneak one past Hasek once in a while. Oh, and Irbe will have to stand on his head. And then they'll have to have a little luck.
The Red Wings are led by, well, everyone. This is a team of high-priced superstars, with a payroll more than double that of the Hurricanes, built for the specific purpose of winning a Stanley Cup right now. There are nine Red Wings who, if they retired today, would be Hall of Famers. The coach, Scotty Bowman, who has won eight Stanley Cups with three teams, has been an "honoured member" for 11 years already, for crying out loud. This is a team on which Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille are sort of like role players. The Red Wings had four 30-goal scorers. Boston, with three, was the only other team with more than two. Carolina had one, O'Neill. (Sharpshooter Sergei Fedorov, probably Detroit's most dangerous player, and regular-season goals leader Brendan Shanahan joined Hull and Robitaille as 30-goal scorers.)
The Wings' puck-possession offense, which features stick handling and precision passing, is the way to beat the Hurricanes' trap defense. Hasek, who might be the next best goaltender after Roy, is desperate to win his first Stanley Cup at 37, and he's riding a two-game shutout streak. The Hurricanes have not won a game in Detroit since 1989, when they were the Hartford Whalers. On paper, it looks like there's no way for the Hurricanes to win this series.
But one of the many great things about hockey is that upsets do happen with some frequency, even in long series. Witness the Hurricanes, who have already pulled off three mild upsets in these playoffs. A hot goaltender can be a great equalizer in hockey, as Carolina's Irbe knows well: He was the goalie for the San Jose Sharks in 1994, when they had no chance to beat the Red Wings in the playoffs, except that they did.
The Hurricanes are the third team in the last six years from the wan Southeast Division to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Their predecessors, the Florida Panthers in 1996 and the Washington Capitals in 1998, were both swept. Honestly, the 'Canes would be pulling off an upset to do them one better and win a game. Just for the hell of it, I'll predict that that's just what they'll do: win one game.
But, like the team that's beating them in five, they'll look sharp in the process.