Hurricanes back in finals, this time as favorite

RALEIGH, N.C. — Four years ago, the Carolina Hurricanes
surprised just about everyone by reaching the Stanley Cup finals.

To listen to Rod Brind'Amour, that included themselves.

Looking back, we didn't really believe we could be there," he said.

Now the Hurricanes are back as the favored team with home-ice advantage against Edmonton. And after spending a season hovering near the top of the NHL standings, they're hardly satisfied with just getting here.

"I'm not sure people expected us to be here and I know we did," Brind'Amour said Friday, "and I know that's one of the key differences from teams past. ... I think going into the finals this time around, we don't feel like a huge underdog or anything like that. I think we have a real confident feeling about our team and all we're capable of doing."

Carolina earned its second trip to the finals by rallying to beat Buffalo 4-2 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night. It capped a series in which five of the seven games were decided by one goal, with two ending on power-play scores in overtime.

It was the final step in a tough path through the Eastern Conference, starting with a six-game series against Montreal in which the Canadiens won the first two games in Raleigh. Then came a five-game series win against New Jersey, which had won 15 straight entering the series.

At first glance, the Hurricanes -- seeded No. 2 in the East -- would seem to be a heavy favorite against the Oilers, who were the No. 8 seed in the West before beating Detroit, San Jose and Anaheim. But at this point, the Hurricanes aren't going to underestimate anybody.

"It doesn't matter if it's a 1 seed or an 8 seed," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "I think if you get down this far in the playoffs, you've got to be playing well."

Now the franchise has another chance at the Cup after falling short against the favored Red Wings in 2002. They won the series opener on Ron Francis' overtime goal on the road, but lost the next four games.

The next two seasons weren't kind to the Hurricanes. They failed to build on the momentum from the first run to the finals, missing the playoffs for the next two seasons before the lockout. But the team that emerged from the work stoppage was one that was poised to take advantage of the new rules designed to increase scoring.

The new faces included defenseman Mike Commodore, who scored the first goal in Game 7 against the Sabres. The Hurricanes also signed free agents Cory Stillman -- who helped Tampa Bay win the Stanley Cup in 2004 -- and Ray Whitney to join a core that included rising talent Eric Staal, U.S. Olympian Erik Cole, and Brind'Amour, the 17-year veteran who is still looking for his first championship ring.

Then, when the Hurricanes found themselves climbing up the standings, they traded for veteran Doug Weight to add depth. And after Cole was lost for the season with a broken neck, Carolina acquired Mark Recchi from Pittsburgh.

"We prepared better for it than any organization out there," Brind'Amour said of the post-lockout NHL. "We were able to pick up players, great players, as opposed to trying to figure out how to get rid of guys. That goes to the management and the coaches, getting in the right guys for the new rule changes."

But even more importantly, Brind'Amour said, Laviolette instilled a winner's mentality from the start of the season. It's carried the Hurricanes all year, and now has them four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

"I think just from the start of the season, you know, we felt like we could win hockey games, and it wasn't about the opponent; it was about us," Laviolette said. "We had confidence we could do that. I think the same thing holds true."


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