'Great play, great goal' puts Carolina in driver's seat
EDMONTON, Alberta -- When Oilers defenseman Chris Pronger picked up the puck below the left circle in his defensive zone, he saw an out, a clear lane toward center ice where a streaking Oiler could pick up his backhand pass and head up the ice.
With time winding down in the second period and the score knotted at one in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, Pronger needed that out. But the Hurricanes new line of Cory Stillman, Eric Staal and Mark Recchi was coming in hard on the forecheck and Stillman's stick, like it has been most of the time these days, was in the right place at the right time.
"I tried to get the pass out over his stick and it went off the top and up in the air," said Pronger.
Staal, sitting high in the slot as Carolina's third man into the zone on the forecheck, plucked the infield-fly-rule-worthy puck out of the air with his left hand, set it at his feet and backhanded a perfect pass to Recchi, who had a made a mad dash for the back post.
"It's a good thing I'm eight feet tall and I caught it," said Staal. "I knew Recchi was kind of back door. I just tried to make a move and throw it back there to him."
But the play started with Stillman's hard-driving forecheck along the boards. Stillman, who scored Carolina's first goal on the power play midway through the first period, is working on a 12-game playoff point streak (six goals, 10 assists) and back-to-back Stanley Cups (he won with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004).
"I have said it before, Cory is the most underrated player I have ever seen," said Staal. "He gets points and makes so many great plays. He's a type of player on your team that you want to play with."
Stillman, though, just considers himself lucky.
"You know what, I think I'm getting some breaks," he said. "I move the puck. Sometimes, I've picked up a second assist or whatever. But I feel good out there. You've got to play the game with confidence and I have that right now. I'm trying to make plays, trying to make guys I play with better, and I have some points consistently. But you need your linemates to step up and they have done that."
Be it his customary linemates (Rod Brind'Amour and Justin Williams), or his temporary ones (Staal and Recchi).
Once Staal had plucked the puck out of the air, all that remained was for Recchi to finish the play. Oilers goaltender Jussi Markkanen had been covering the near post and never made it back across the crease after the puck deflected off Stillman's stick. "I just had to make sure I put it in the open net," Recchi said. And he did, for his seventh goal of the playoffs and the game winner.
On the half-wall, Pronger could only watch.
"They made a great play," he said. "They get the goal."
And the 3-1 series lead.
Lindsay Berra is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.