Canes reaping benefits of Stillman signing
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Cory Stillman has that right-place, right-time knack.
Two years ago, after helping the Lightning win the Stanley Cup, the 11-year veteran forward hoped to stay with Tampa Bay.
Fortunately for him and the Carolina Hurricanes, that didn't work out.
When the Lightning let Stillman walk away as a free agent, the Hurricanes made him part of their plan to retool the roster for the new-look NHL.
Stillman rewarded them by finishing the regular season tied for second on the team in scoring. He was even better in the playoffs, helping Carolina reach the Stanley Cup finals for the second time.
His biggest challenge? Getting enough credit for all that production.
"In my opinion, not only is he underrated through the league, even on our team, he never gets enough recognition for what he does," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said Sunday. "You hear about Eric Staal, Rod Brind'Amour, our young goaltender [Cam Ward], and Cory always seems to slide."
Stillman, who signed a three-year contract with Carolina in August, ranks tied for second in the playoffs with 19 points heading into Game 1 against Edmonton on Monday. He has a point in eight straight games and 15 of the past 17, tallying seven goals and 12 assists in the postseason.
He's four wins away from winning the Cup for the second straight season. But in a market still dominated by college basketball, Stillman is among the most anonymous of Hurricanes.
"I can still go unnoticed pretty much where I want to, but it's exciting," Stillman said. "Hopefully my face can be recognized for a long time, and in order to do that, we have to win."
Stillman put his knack for good timing on display in the last three games of the Eastern Conference finals win against Buffalo. With the series tied 2-2, Stillman corralled a loose puck that had ricocheted off the boards and slid it between Ryan Miller's pads for a power-play goal midway through overtime in a 4-3 win.
Then, in Game 6, he assisted on Bret Hedican's tying goal late in the third period of a 2-1 overtime loss.
Finally, in Game 7, he assisted on Brind'Amour's go-ahead score midway through the third and Justin Williams' insurance goal in the final minute of a 4-2 victory.
"You look at the goals in the playoffs, he's been in on all of them: key ones, on the ice, assists, whatever," Brind'Amour said. "It's a huge, huge pickup for us."
He also scored the series-clinching winning goal in both of Carolina's earlier rounds. His slapshot from just inside the blue line 1:19 into overtime beat Montreal in Game 6 of the first round, and his power-play goal in the second period helped the Hurricanes put away New Jersey in five games in the conference semifinals.
"I think Cory's been the type of guy who's been undervalued and underappreciated his whole career," Oilers center Michael Peca said. "Even in Tampa Bay, he scored big goals and he's always been a guy that's been able to get himself and his team big goals when they need it."
In his only season with Tampa Bay, Stillman was seventh in the NHL with 80 points in 81 games. He was scheduled to have an arbitration hearing in August 2004, but a team spokesman said Stillman and the Lightning had worked out a deal that would have him receive a $3.9 million award from an arbiter -- the amount the Lightning expected he would be given following a hearing.
But the Lightning decided to walk away, making Stillman an unrestricted free agent. The Hurricanes couldn't be happier with the decision.
"I wanted to re-sign there," Stillman said. "Obviously they had to sign some big guys at that time, and I guess they thought I was a guy that could be easily replaced. You'd have to ask them why things worked out that way. I don't have the answers. I just go where somebody wants me."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press