Nothing like an NHL Game 7. Nothing.
With a packed, hankie-waving crowd going wild at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., the Carolina Hurricanes beat the undermanned Buffalo Sabres 4-2 Thursday night to take a classic seven-game conference final and reach the Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers.
Edmonton-Carolina is exactly the kind of all-small-market final that could never have happened if the NHL hadn't interrupted play for a year with a lockout that was necessary to get the league's financial house in order and restore competitive balance.
Just look at the last Stanley Cup Finals before the stoppage: Tampa Bay vs. Calgary.
Oh. Hmm. Wait a minute.
But hey! Let's talk about the Hurricanes, a Sun Belt team that never could have gotten this far in the old economic system. The 'Canes haven't been to the Finals since 2002.
OK, hang on.
What a game!
Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour scored the game winner, racing in from the right circle to pounce on a loose puck that Buffalo defenseman Roy Fitzpatrick didn't appear to know was in his skates right in the low slot. That power-play goal broke a 2-2 tie with 8:44 to go, and the Hurricanes put the game away when Justin Williams picked up his own rebound and backhanded it past fallen goalie Ryan Miller with 52 seconds left.
The Sabres fought bravely with a decided shortage of NHL defensemen, having lost four of them to injury, Jay McKee the latest to go out -- with a leg infection. And that's not to mention injured center Tim Connolly.
But in the end they couldn't overcome the manpower problem and the step the Hurricanes seemed to get from the home crowd.
Buffalo stunned that crowd by scoring a go-ahead goal with five seconds left in the second period. Jochen Hecht bounced the puck off goalie Cam Ward from behind the net, Ward having failed to seal off the left post when Hecht circled behind.
It was one of several funny bounces that helped decide the game. The Hurricanes' first goal, on a slap shot by Mike Commodore, went in after ricocheting off two Sabres players. Given 50 tries, Minnesota Fats couldn't have reproduced that carom.
Brind'Amour's game winner came on a man advantage created when Buffalo defenseman Brian Campbell accidentally flipped the puck over the boards on a clearing attempt, a delay of game.
A two-minute minor for that often-accidental offense, one of the rules changes instituted upon the league's return to action this season that have overall been massively positive for the game, has struck me as too severe.
I've heard it suggested that the referees should have the discretion to wave the penalty off if they think it was accidental, though that forces them to become mind readers. I'm OK with that -- they're paid to use their judgment, after all, and they have the discretion to wave off icing if they feel it's accidental. I'd also be OK with letting teams off with a warning for the first offense, then penalizing them the second time it happens.
I'm guessing I can round up an amen chorus for this line of thinking in western New York right about now.
The Finals -- the first ever between former members of the World Hockey Association, by the way -- set up as a dandy.
The story at the start will be the well-rested Oilers vs. the battle-weary Hurricanes. The Oilers will have been off for nine days when the puck drops for Game 1 Monday, having eliminated the Mighty Ducks in five games ending May 27. They were so tired of sitting around in Edmonton that they flew to New York late in the week to practice at the Rangers' facility just for something to do.
The Hurricanes are coming off this grueling seven-game series against Buffalo, though they get a break of having two days off before the Finals start. In the last round, the Oilers were coming off a single off day when they pounced on the well-rested Ducks, winning the first three games.
Once that subject's played out, the series will come down to two deep, uptempo teams with strong blue-line corps, hot goalies and fan bases going bananas. I have no clue and no insights about who's going to win, but I'll take Edmonton, the first No. 8 seed ever to make it this far, on West Coast bias alone.
A couple of large-market teams battling in the Finals, say Detroit vs. the Rangers, might have been good for the NHL's anemic TV ratings, but in a lot of ways the league couldn't have asked for anything more. The Oilers and Hurricanes reaching the Finals provides some vindication for the lockout strategy, and they figure to provide an exciting series.
It's a series we've had to wait too long for, two years. But at least it's finally here.
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The return of chat [PERMALINK]
Last fall I ended my weekly chats in Table Talk because a new kid and a new gig with XM Radio were biting too hard into my time. They're still biting -- the kid is starting to do so literally, with all three teeth -- but I'm going to give the chats another crack.
We'll do it monthly, starting Wednesday, June 14, at 1 p.m. EDT. After that, the chat will move to the first Wednesday of the month. I'll schedule each chat for an hour, but we'll keep them going longer if the conversation's rocking.
You have to be a Table Talk member to participate, but not to read along. Please join us.
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