A behind-the-scenes look at the Cup finals
Eric and Goliath
One of the interesting story lines of the finals will be the confrontation of the immovable force known as Edmonton defenseman Chris Pronger and the talented Carolina forward contingent.
If Rod Brind'Amour, Justin Williams and Cory Stillman continue to be the Hurricanes' dominant forward unit, Pronger likely will log more ice time against them. If, however, Eric Staal's play returns to the level it was at during the first two rounds, then expect Pronger to try to defuse the young star, as he has successfully neutered Brendan Shanahan, Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton, Jonathan Cheechoo and Teemu Selanne in earlier rounds.
"I think Eric's got to continue to play his game," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "This is a fast, smart guy that's strong on the puck, that has great speed, great on the power play, great hands, great vision. To be honest, I don't know how it's going to go. I don't know if I'll try to get away or not get away from that."
Staal said he's looking forward to the challenge.
"Any challenge is good for me. I enjoy playing against the top D and working my best to create offense," said Staal, 21, who leads the NHL with 20 postseason points. "Obviously, it's not going to be easy. [Pronger has] done a tremendous job so far of getting his team there. I'm looking forward to it."
Never mind six, how about one degree of separation?
This series might feature two small-market teams, but it is a matchup that has big-market story lines. The two dressing rooms are rife with connections, intersections and history.
For instance, Carolina forward Ray Whitney was a stick boy for the Oilers in the late 1980s. And Whitney's father, Floyd, was the extra goalie during Oilers practices and continues to work security at Rexall Place.
And Carolina's rookie netminder Cam Ward is from nearby Sherwood Park and is getting married there next month.
And Carolina center Doug Weight spent parts of nine NHL seasons in Edmonton, captaining the team for two years.
But there's more.
Oilers agitator Todd Harvey was drafted into the OHL by Carolina GM Jim Rutherford when Rutherford was head of Carolina owner Peter Karmanos' junior hockey operation in the Detroit area.
Carolina captain Brind'Amour once played with Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish in Philadelphia.
Oilers star Pronger was drafted by the Hartford Whalers, who ultimately became the Carolina Hurricanes. He was traded by Rutherford to St. Louis for Shanahan, a deal that put in motion a series of transactions that ultimately led to Brind'Amour's becoming a Hurricane.
Carolina defenseman Glen Wesley, the current NHL player who has played the longest without winning a Stanley Cup, once played with Pronger in Hartford.
So, what does all this "past is close behind you" stuff mean?
"All it is, really, is just stories for some other people to write about," the Canes forward said. "I want to win a Cup just like they do. The fact that I was 17 years old carrying sticks out there has no relevance at all [to] why I'm here now."
No more singing the Blues
There was a time when it wouldn't have been at all surprising to imagine Weight and Pronger together in the Stanley Cup finals. The problem for the St. Louis Blues and their fans is that they believed it would be with the Blues. Instead, after years of failure and disappointment in St. Louis, the two veteran stars are appearing in their first Cup finals in different dressing rooms.
Although both failed in the past to live up to expectations with the high-payroll Blues, they have taken advantage of their respective situations this spring.
"It's funny, because I answer a tremendous amount of questions, obviously, about Edmonton ... and no one really asks me about Prongs. And we spent five years together," Weight said. "It's going to be strange. We lived a mile apart, and I think we both admit we thought it was going to be a winning franchise. We thought we probably were going to end our career there at one time, two or three years ago.
"It's very strange to have a year off and, all of a sudden, I'm going to be playing against him and he's in Edmonton. Edmonton would be the last place I'd think Chris would be prior to having a new CBA. It's a strange thing."
Hey, Dad, can I borrow the blocker?
If Ernest Hemingway wrote about the starting goalies in this series, he might call it "The Old Man and the Much Younger Man." It wouldn't have the same zip as "The Old Man and the Sea," but it'd sell like crazy in Edmonton.
According to the NHL, the 14-year gap between Edmonton's Dwayne Roloson, 36, and Ward, 22, is the fourth-widest age gap between starting netminders in the Stanley Cup finals.
"Cam told me how old he was when he was watching the Edmonton-Dallas series [in 1997]. Took me aback for a couple of days," Weight joked.
Ward, a rookie who wasn't expected to play much in the playoffs, is second among NHL netminders in the postseason with a 2.07 goals-against average and second only to Roloson with 11 wins. He said he's not yet ready to wake up from the Canes' playoff dream.
"I've said all along I don't want to pinch myself quite yet," Ward said. "Obviously, we're having the ride of our life here, and [I'm] doing everything I can to enjoy it."
Roloson patiently explained that he does not care a whit about the age difference and what it might or might not mean.
Here are the top four age gaps in the finals:
1967: Johnny Bower, Toronto (42) vs. Rogie Vachon, Montreal (21)
1969: Jacques Plante, St. Louis (40) vs. Rogie Vachon, Montreal (23)
1967: Terry Sawchuk, Toronto (37) vs. Rogie Vachon, Montreal (21)
2006: Roloson, Edmonton (36) vs. Ward, Carolina (22)
Battle of the lids
Of all the matchups in the finals, surely none will be more crucial than The Battle of the Lids, featuring Edmonton's Ryan Smyth and Carolina's Mike Commodore. Both players symbolize the hard-nosed nature of the game and the price that must be paid for victory. They also reflect wildly divergent yet equally impressive hairstyles.
Which will emerge victorious: Smyth's classic retro-mullet, now enhanced by looping 1970s style bangs and missing teeth, or Commodore's untamed mess of sky-high, curly red locks?
"In a very humid environment, I have to go with Mike Commodore; he gets extra puff to the Ronald McDonald hair," Aaron Ward offered. "My favorite actually is when he's on the plane and the air's blowing from the top, he gets the Carrot Top look, where it sticks out the side and it's flat on top. And he can't feel when the air's blowing because it's so thick."
Matt Cullen respects the mullet but still thinks Commodore is more worthy of hair recognition. "[Smyth's] got a really nice mullet going. I like it. I think it's pretty impressive, but Commodore's been working on his all season, since Day One, and look at that. Unbelievable."
Edmonton defenseman Steve Staios disagrees: "Smitty's got the best hair in the league."
Excuse me, is that a lug wrench or are you just a hockey fan?
In a bizarre spin-off of the Detroit tradition of tossing octopi onto the ice during the playoffs, Edmonton fans have been hurling Grade A, 100 percent Alberta beef at the feet of opposing players during the national anthems this spring.
Are Carolina players worried?
"I haven't really thought about that. I just hope it's not frozen. Hopefully, they thaw it out," Commodore said.
It looks thawed.
"Well, that's all right. A little blood on the jersey never hurt anybody," added Cullen, who will be watching for flying beef when Game 1 starts Monday night. "I remember watching them when they played Detroit, and that one almost hit [Pavel] Datsyuk. It was pretty close."
So, what do Canes fans throw on the ice? An oil slick? A pack of cigarettes? A lug wrench?
"No, they're too polite," Ward said. "They're not in the practice of throwing anything on the ice, and we'd like to keep it that way."
Sorry, I can't hear you for the sound of the cash register
Within days of the end of the Stanley Cup finals, many of the players involved will find themselves at a crossroads. Between the Oilers and Hurricanes, there are no fewer than 20 everyday players who could become unrestricted free agents.
"I'd be a liar to say that I haven't considered it," Ward said. "I really, at this moment, think it would be a jinx to start talking about it. Winning Stanley Cups helps you, inevitably, it's something that kind of accompanies you."
"Everybody understands that [getting to the finals] helps," Cullen added. "We all know. Actually, [Canes coach] Peter [Laviolette] talks about that a lot. How individual success translates into team success. He showed us a sheet halfway through the year, where everybody was at, and how, if you continue this, how many guys are going to have career years. It was really impressive. We were like, 'Holy cow.'"
Pisani must be stopped!
Perhaps for the first time ever, an opposing coach was asked how he was going to shut down Fernando Pisani.
Not Smyth or Pronger or Sergei Samsonov, but Fernando Pisani.
Not that it was a bad question. Pisani is tied for the NHL playoff goal-scoring lead (with nine). Not bad for a guy who had 18 goals in 80 regular-season games. MacTavish acknowledged the 29-year-old might have done even more.
"I've probably been guilty of holding him back, playing other guys in certain situations, trying to get them ice time in power-play situations," MacTavish said. "I'm giving it to him now, and he's really reveling in it."
Pisani, for his part, seemed genuinely shocked that he might figure into the opposing team's strategy.
"I don't know how to respond to that," he admitted. "I've never had to deal with that before."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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