The waiting is almost over. On Thursday night, the Carolina Hurricanes will return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in nine years. Soon it will be time to turn our attention forward, towards a series against the reigning Stanley Cup Champions.
But before we do that, let’s go back in time. During the eight years (seven seasons - one year being lost to a lockout) between the ‘01-’02 season and the ‘08-’09 season, the Canes made the playoffs three times. Over that stretch, they won nine out of eleven playoff series. It’s a remarkable record of success, one that should be remembered - yet, with so many new fans since 2009, some of the details may have faded from memory. So let’s reminisce, shall we? Seven of the most memorable Canes’ playoff series in no particular order...
2002 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals (New Jersey Devils)
In their fifth season following relocation from Hartford, the Hurricanes faced the New Jersey Devils in a rematch of the prior year’s first round series. The Devils were led by future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur, who had already won two Stanley Cups by this point in his career. However, Brodeur would make a costly mistake in overtime of Game Two by playing a puck that otherwise would have been whistled for icing. A subsequent tip-in seconds later by Bates Battaglia put the Canes up 2-0 in the series.
After dropping the next two games in New Jersey, the Canes returned home for Game Five. Like Game Two, this one would go to overtime. In the extra session, Kevin Weekes made a highlight reel save on John Madden which kept the game going. A few minutes later, Josef Vasicek would find the back of the net to put the Canes up 3-2 in the series. Weekes would ride the momentum from “The Save” to a shutout of the Devils in Game Six, a 1-0 win which closed out the series.
To put this series win in context, consider that from the ‘99-’00 season through the ‘02-’03 season the Devils went to the Stanley Cup Final every year - except this one. During that span, they won two Stanley Cups and lost in Game Seven of the Finals the other year. In other words, the Devils were good...really, really good.
2006 Eastern Conference Semifinals (New Jersey Devils)
Much was made at the time that Cam Ward had idolized Martin Brodeur as a young goalie. He got the chance to compete against his idol in this second-round matchup in 2006. Ward got the shutout in Game One, a 6-0 smashing in Raleigh.
However, Game Two was a much closer affair, tied 1-1 late in the third. A late goal by the Devils left the Canes only 21.7 seconds to equalize and force overtime. A wild sequence followed, with Eric Staal banging home a feed from Justin Williams to draw level with only 3 seconds left. Three minutes into overtime, Niclas “The Secret Weapon” Wallin would get a pass from Rod Brind’Amour, bust into the Devils zone and beat Brodeur with some help from his skate to put the Canes up 2-0 in the series. The Canes would go on to split the games in New Jersey, then take care of business in Raleigh to close out the series, four games to one.
2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals (New Jersey Devils)
Had enough, Marty Brodeur? We’re almost done here. In 2009, Ward and Brodeur combined for fantastic goaltending in a playoff classic. Despite Ward making 35 saves in Game One, the Canes lost 4-1. Game Two saw Ward and Brodeur shut the door time and again. Ward stopped 33 out of 34 and Brodeur 30 out of 32. Tim Gleason’s overtime winner brought the Canes level at one game each. After a 3-2 overtime loss in Raleigh, Game Four seemed a must-win. After losing a 3-0 lead in the third period, Jussi Jokinen’s goal with 0.2 seconds remaining in regulation evened the series at 2-2.
Brodeur could not be beaten in Game Five, stopping all 44 shots from the Hurricanes as the Devils got the 1-0 shutout. Cam Ward returned the favor in Game Six with a 28 save shutout of his own that set the stage for a memorable Game Seven in New Jersey.
The Devils held a 3-2 lead late into the third period. With the Canes desperate for a goal, Joni Pitkanen found an unmarked Jussi Jokinen on a cross-ice pass that Jokinen one-timed past Brodeur to tie the game 3-3 with 1:20 left in regulation. Less than a minute later, Eric Staal would shock the New Jersey crowd by beating Brodeur and clinching the series.
2006 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals (Montreal Canadiens)
After giving up a combined twelve goals in the first two games, the Canes found themselves in a deep hole entering Game Three. Already down 2-0 in the series, they trailed 1-0 in the third. Rod Brind’Amour pulled them even, and Eric Staal’s overtime winner shifted the momentum in the series. The Canes then won the next three games - all by a single goal - as the 2006 playoff run picked up steam.
2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals (Boston Bruins)
After dispatching the Devils, the Canes met the Bruins in the second round. This would arguably turn out to be the most emotional playoff series in the Canes’ history. Context is important here. At the time, Boston had not won the Stanley Cup since 1972 and had not been to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1990. They posted 116 points in the regular season - their best since the ‘72 team - and were the #1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference. They swept the Montreal Canadiens in the first round and seemed poised to cruise into the Conference Finals after topping the Canes 4-1 in Game One.
However, Ward was dominant in Game Two, posting a 36 save shutout which evened the series as it shifted to Raleigh. Then, Jussi Jokinen took over. Just shy of three minutes into overtime of Game Three, Jokinen got to a loose puck in front of Tim Thomas and knocked home the winner. Jokinen would add another game-winning-goal in Game Four, giving the Canes a 3-1 series lead.
A Game Five shutout for Tim Thomas followed, with a late disturbance between former Cane Aaron Ward and Scott Walker grabbing headlines in Boston. Another victory by Boston in Game Six sent the series to Game Seven in Boston. Off the ice, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy disparagingly referred to Canes’ fans as “a bunch of goobers”. Game Seven lived up to the hype, with the Canes taking a 2-1 lead into the third. Milan Lucic tied the game in the third. Late in the first session of overtime, Walker ended the series, batting a rebound past Thomas and stunning Boston.
2006 Eastern Conference Final (Buffalo Sabres)
After falling behind 2-1 in the series, Martin Gerber replaced Ward as the starting goalie in Game Four. Gerber recorded a 22 save shutout that evened the series as it shifted back to Raleigh. Gerber would in turn be replaced by Ward after giving up three goals on eleven shots in Game Five. The Canes would force overtime, winning the game on a Cory Stillman power play goal. After the Sabres won Game Six in overtime, the Canes would come from behind in the third period in Game Seven to clinch the series and move on to the Stanley Cup Final.
2006 Stanley Cup Finals (Edmonton Oilers)
Stereotypes were flipped in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final as the Canadian team entered as the big underdogs to the hockey team from North Carolina. The Edmonton Oilers barely secured the final Western Conference playoff spot that year, then shocked the Detroit Red Wings - who had posted 124 points in the regular season - in the first round. The Canes took an early series lead behind a late Brind’Amour goal in Game One. Game Two was a Cam Ward shutout as the Canes took a 2-0 series lead to Edmonton. The teams split Games Three and Four, which sent the series back to Raleigh with a chance for the Canes to clinch in Game Five.
After a wild first period saw a combined five goals, the Canes trailed 3-2. Eric Staal tied the game in the second period. Only three minutes into overtime, the Canes drew a penalty and went on the power play. However, it was not meant to be. A turnover at the blue line that Cory Stillman still likely sees in his nightmares - to say nothing of the nightmares of many Canes fans - led to a shorthanded Fernando Pisani goal for Edmonton. Game Six was a shutout for Oiler goalie Jussi Markkanen. Game Seven in Raleigh would follow, and you know how this ends. Aaron Ward, Frank Kaberle, Justin Williams, the crowd standing for the entire game, and at the end, the Stanley Cup...