May 15, 2006

Hurricanes Top Devils, Advance to NHL's Eastern Conference Finals (From the News & Observer)

Now, Bring on Buffalo

By Luke DeCock, Staff Writer

RALEIGH - As the Carolina Hurricanes played out the final 88 seconds with victory assured, as Rod Brind'Amour walked through the postgame handshake line, it all happened to the accompaniment of wild cheering instead of polite applause.

It was a first for Brind'Amour since joining the Hurricanes. It was a first for the franchise since moving to North Carolina from Hartford, Conn.

The Hurricanes closed out the New Jersey Devils in five games Sunday with a 4-1 win on home ice, moving on to the Eastern Conference finals against Buffalo with a win in front of fans who know about Final Fours. But this time, it's the NHL variety.

"It's just nice to hear them cheering and having a good time," said Brind'Amour, the Hurricanes' captain said. "They pay a lot of money to come watch us play and there's a sense in this room, and always has been, that we're trying to do it for them, too. We know we're building this market and we know what we've done and have to do to keep them coming. They're a part of it, and they got to celebrate it."

In 2002, all three of Carolina's series wins came in Game 6 on the road, with the late-night celebration reserved for the parking lots at the airport. This year, Carolina's first-round win over the Montreal Canadiens was sealed on the road in Game 6, again.

This one came at home, and the Canes did it by playing like they were on the road.

Killing off penalty after penalty early, scoring on their first power play and getting a bounce-back performance from Cam Ward in net, the Hurricanes will head north for the second time in five years -- to the shores of Lake Erie this time instead of Lake Ontario -- with a chance to represent the Eastern Conference for the Stanley Cup. They'll take on the Sabres in a series expected to begin as early as Thursday and no later than Saturday at Raleigh's RBC Center.

The series between the Canes and Sabres, who upset the Ottawa Senators in five games, promises to be a thrilling one between two quick, aggressive teams with offensive-minded defenses and rookie goalies. Sunday certainly wasn't like that at all.

The Devils had two power-play opportunities, six shots on goal and a 1-0 lead before the Hurricanes forced Martin Brodeur to make a save.

But the Canes killed off all five early New Jersey power plays and limited a unit that went 8-for-27 in the first round to three goals in the series, making a few key adjustments Sunday after giving up a pair of power-play goals Saturday.

"We tried to take as much time away as you can from the guys who make everything tick," Carolina's Kevyn Adams said. "We were able to squeeze those guys a little bit. With a power play that good, you know you're going to give up chances. You just hope your goalie's there."

And Ward was, bouncing back from a rough outing less than 36 hours earlier. Pulled 44 seconds into the second period of Saturday's 5-1 loss after giving up four goals on 17 shots, Ward gave up a goal Brian Gionta on the first shot he faced but stopped the next 17 as the Canes scored three unanswered goals to end the series, outshooting New Jersey 26-7 in the second and third periods.

It started with a Frantisek Kaberle shot that hit New Jersey defenseman Paul Martin and deflected over Brodeur before the first period was out. That, along with hits by Doug Weight on Brian Rafalski and Bret Hedican on Gionta, earned the Canes a standing ovation as the period expired.

"When you get through that time, you start to think, 'Well, maybe it's supposed to be your night,' " Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said.

Turns out, it was. After killing off the fifth New Jersey power play early in the second period, the Canes got their first power play of the night when David Hale cross-checked Stillman into the boards. Stillman got the best kind of revenge 50 seconds later.

Brind'Amour brought the puck up the ice and cut to the middle. He gave the puck to Justin Williams on the left wing, who tapped the puck through the crease for Stillman at the far post. Doug Weight found Ray Whitney cutting to the net with a no-look, backhand pass out of the corner in the third and Whitney picked a corner to make it a two-goal lead and ice the game.

On a day when the RBC Center reverberated with the sound of severe weather before and during the game -- and the lights went out briefly with 2:10 to play -- the Canes had weathered the storm and put away the Devils for the second time in three playoff meetings between the teams.

By finishing off the Devils at home, the Canes for the first time basked in the recognition that comes from a home-ice win in a deciding game, enjoying a prolonged ovation as the clock wound down after Eric Staal's empty-net goal.

Staff writer Luke DeCock can be reached at 829-8947 or