Carolina's comeback efforts reach new heights
RALEIGH, N.C. -- After this most bizarro of playoff wins, one might have expected the Carolina Hurricanes' dressing room would have been electric with euphoria, or at the very least, giddy with relief.
Instead, there was quiet introspection.
"What do you see in this dressing room?" defenseman Aaron Ward asked, gesturing to the oddly silent room. "It's the knowledge that we absolutely escaped with a game, 100 percent by the skin of our teeth."
A few moments earlier, Rod Brind'Amour had scored with 31.1 seconds left in the third period off a horrific gaffe by backup Oilers netminder Ty Conklin to give the Hurricanes a most improbable 5-4 win in the first game of the Stanley Cup finals Monday night.
Although the Hurricanes' signature move this season has been the comeback, this was unlike anything seen thus far, coming back from a 3-0 deficit that included a penalty shot goal by Edmonton defenseman Chris Pronger and scoring the winner after Oilers starter Dwayne Roloson had left the game -- and the series -- with a knee injury.
It's as though the Eastern Conference champs saved their most dramatic flourishes for this big stage.
Of course, the big finish required a very small, flat start.
"We were blatantly off in the first and second periods," Ward said.
The good thing, the veteran defenseman surmised, was that no matter what happens they can't possibly be as bad in Game 2.
"I don't think you'll find anybody in our room that was real happy with the way we played," coach Peter Laviolette added.
For most of the first two periods, the Edmonton Oilers looked like the team of destiny many believe they are. In spite of a nine-day layoff after the Western Conference finals, the Oilers opened the finals on enemy territory by stapling the Hurricanes to the end boards on virtually every shift. The puck dropped and they started hitting everything that moved, just as they did against Anaheim and versus San Jose and Detroit before that.
The Hurricanes, who have yet to play a team that marries the physical and the speedy so nicely, seemed wide-eyed and flat-footed.
"They did a good job of dictating the game," Kevyn Adams said. "They were able to really control the first 40 minutes."
The Oilers' pounding yielded the first goal as Ward coughed up the puck in his own end and allowed Fernando Pisani to put home a rebound midway through the first period. The swarming Oilers attack led directly to the call on Niclas Wallin in the Carolina crease that sent Pronger in on his first NHL penalty shot, which gave the Oilers a 2-0 lead.
The relentless Edmonton forecheck yielded a loose puck and an Ethan Moreau shot that banked in off Ward to make it 3-0 with less than four minutes to go in the second period.
In the old days, with a 3-0 score late in the second period, reporters would have finished their stories by the start of the third period. Players on both teams would have been saving their energy for Game 2. Coaches would have been drawing up their next game plan.
But the past is the past, and if ever there was a team that lives in the moment no matter what, it's the Carolina Hurricanes. They are an amazing 7-4 this spring when the opposing team scores first. After outscoring the Oilers 4-1 in the third, the Hurricanes have outscored playoff opponents 22-9 in the final frame.
"Guys were upset, and rightfully so. We worked all year to get to the Stanley Cup finals," said Justin Williams, whose shorthanded goal gave the Hurricanes a 4-3 lead midway through the third period. "We had a tough series last time and we can't afford a letdown, and that's what we had in the first 20 minutes, first 40 minutes. They took the play to us. We just had to get that back, get that fight back, that anger."
The Hurricanes have come from behind so often this spring that it's one activity instead of a collection of many tiny moments that weave themselves into something dramatic.
Like defenseman Mike Commodore diving to break up a Ryan Smyth pass on an odd-man rush, after which the Canes turned the puck up ice and Brind'Amour tapped in the rebound of a Williams shot to make it 3-1.
"It was a start," Commodore said. "We know we have to be better. We know we got away with one tonight. The first two periods for us, that's not going to cut it."
Or Eric Staal, who'd appeared to hit a bit of a wall late in the Eastern Conference finals and had missed a couple of glorious chances early in Game 1. But he made a fine play on a Carolina power play to set up Mark Recchi in the slot. Roloson made the initial stop, but former Oilers stick boy Ray Whitney deposited the rebound for his second goal in 3:29 to tie the score at 3-3.
The more the Hurricanes began to move their feet and generate speed through the neutral zone in the second half of the game, the less opportunity there was for the Oilers to knock them down. And the less chance the Oilers had to knock the stuffing out of the Hurricanes, the more the comeback was complete, both on the scoreboard and in the players' minds on both sides of the ice.
"We got seduced late in the second period into trading chances," Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish said. "I thought we were sharp. But the disappointing thing was that we didn't manage our game mentally, as well as what we should have, given the circumstances."
If you can't coach your team to come from behind, you certainly can instill in the players the philosophy that makes it possible.
"I think it's human nature when you're down to raise your level and when you're up to take a breath. And that may be enough, along with trying to push the pace, and push the puck sometimes," Laviolette said. "I think you play a little bit more carefree. To me, if it's 3-1 or 7-1, you've lost the game so you may as well empty the tank, unload the defensemen and push the pace."
The Hurricanes don't have a monopoly on resiliency.
The Oilers lost the opening game in each of the first two rounds and rebounded to win both series in six games.
But that was with a healthy Roloson, not a rusty Conklin -- or Jussi Markkanen -- depending whom MacTavish turns to in Game 2 on Wednesday night.
But games such as this one will be difficult to step away from for the Oilers. As for the Hurricanes, the somber tone in the dressing room reflected the knowledge that this was especially remarkable in a spring when remarkable has been the norm.
Were it not for a handful of mind-boggling saves by rookie netminder Cam Ward, including two breathtaking stops on Shawn Horcoff in the last half of the third period, the story line for this game -- indeed, this series -- might well be different.
"It's almost an expectation," Aaron Ward said. "But those ones were ridiculous."
Now, it falls to the Oilers in Game 2 to play the comeback game.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.