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Best Teams to Not Win: The 2001-02 Hurricanes

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We kick off our “best teams to never win a championship series” with the remarkable 2002 run.

Hurricanes v Red Wings Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images/NHLI

Editor’s note: As SB Nation continues to do theme weeks with sports shut down, this week’s is “best teams to never win a championship”. While the Hurricanes don’t have much in the category of “clear cut title contenders that fell short”, they’ve seen plenty of remarkable runs. So, we’re going to highlight a few of those teams, what made them special and what ultimately kept them from winning. We’ll also be looking at two strong regular seasons with heartbreaking finishes. The series will feature five total teams, starting today with the 2002 Cinderella Story.

You could make the case that the Carolina Hurricanes’ run to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final began more than a year before.

On April 22, 2001, the Hurricanes lost 5-1 to the eventual conference champion New Jersey Devils, failing to get out of the first round for the second time in three seasons despite winning twice down 3-0 in the series to bring the series back to Raleigh for Game 6. With five minutes left, a few fans began to applaud, knowing that their team’s season was about to end. That applause turned into a torrent, culminating in a standing ovation that lasted for the duration of the game. It didn’t matter that the home team had just been blown out: the reputation of the Loudest House in the NHL was established.

The Southeast Division of the late 1990s and early 2000s was a two-horse race. The Hurricanes and Washington Capitals fought for supremacy every season, with the woebegone Panthers, Lightning and Thrashers left to fill out the schedule. And with a top-three playoff seed, and home ice in at least one round, awaiting the division champion, there was plenty at stake the following season.

The Hurricanes of 2002 were a somewhat old team, seventh out of 30 teams with an average age of 29.2 and led in scoring by 38-year-old captain Ron Francis. A series of relatively fruitless drafts had left the cupboard pretty bare, with only Erik Cole and the late Josef Vasicek topping 20 points among players the Hurricanes drafted in the five seasons since the move to North Carolina. That left the heavy offensive lifting to the likes of Sami Kapanen, a nice player who set his career high of 69 points, and Jeff O’Neill, whose 64 points was three behind his career high set the season before.

In goal, 34-year-old Arturs Irbe was entrenched for his fourth season as the Hurricanes’ number-one, but general manager Jim Rutherford knew that his goaltender couldn’t possibly keep up the workload of the previous two seasons, in which he played 152 games - 77 of which had come the year before. With that in mind, Rutherford brought in Tom Barrasso, the longtime Penguin who had spent the 2000-01 season out of hockey.

It’s rare that a Hurricanes team jumped out to an early division lead and never looked back, but Carolina took the Southeast lead for good on October 20 and cruised to the division title, opening an 11-point lead on Washington by November 15 and eventually claiming the division by six points. Of course, this being the Hurricanes, they couldn’t do it easily, and at no time was that more obvious than a stretch of eight weeks where they could do nothing but play to ties at the then-Entertainment and Sports Arena.

The streak began with a 2-2 home draw against the Predators on January 23. Then came the Panthers and Sabres, after which the league took time off for the All-Star break. Surely when they came back, the conventional wisdom went, the ties would be a thing of the past.

But they weren’t. In came the Penguins for a 3-3 tie, after which the Hurricanes went on an eight-game road trip that was interrupted halfway through by the 2002 Winter Olympics. Certainly, by the time the Canes returned to Raleigh on March 8, six weeks after the first tie, they’d get back to the business of either winning or losing hockey games, right?

Wrong. 2-2 to the Capitals. 3-3 to the Flames. 1-1 to the Canadiens, by which time the home crowd had taken to wearing ties to games regardless of the rest of the wardrobe. Finally, after a seven-game home tie streak, the Hurricanes beat the Panthers 3-2, the first time in two months there was an actual winner in a hockey game played in Raleigh. The Hurricanes tied 16 games in the 2001-02 season, three more than any other team in the league.

Two major trades defined the first months of 2002. In January, Rutherford dealt Sandis Ozolinsh, whose 18 months in Carolina never lived up to expectations, to Florida for a pair of players who would become longtime fixtures, Bret Hedican and Kevyn Adams. The next month, the Canes picked up goalie Kevin Weekes off a Lightning team going nowhere in exchange for Shane Willis, a Calder Trophy hopeful from the season before whose career was never the same after his trucking at the hands of Scott Stevens in the 2001 playoffs.

The acquisition of Weekes, in particular, proved prescient. In overtime of Game 5 against New Jersey, with the series tied at two, Weekes made an improbable save, presaging a similar save by Cam Ward four years later by robbing John Madden and setting the stage for Vasicek to end it minutes later:

The heroics of Weekes and Vasicek helped the Hurricanes earn the franchise’s first series win since 1986, and of the three Eastern Conference division champions Carolina was the only one to move onto round two. The first-round ousters of the top-seeded Bruins and second-seeded Flyers meant that the Hurricanes were the highest-seeded team remaining, and would have home-ice advantage all the way to the Stanley Cup Final if they made it that far.

But they almost didn’t. Despite a second-round matchup against the eight-seed Canadiens, the worst team by points in the field, the Hurricanes were on the ropes in Game 4 in Montreal, down 2-1 in the series and 3-1 in the game. What happened next was, ahem, miraculous, and was painstakingly chronicled by Ford just days ago on this very site.

By the time the Hurricanes advanced to the conference final against the Maple Leafs, they had stumbled upon a second line that was nearly unstoppable. Rod Brind’Amour and Erik Cole had played most of the season together, but neither of them jumped off the page. Late in the season, Paul Maurice moved third-liner Bates Battaglia up to play on Brind’Amour’s left wing, and while the defensively-stifling style of the Devils didn’t lend itself to an offensive breakout, the Canadiens series saw the BBC Line take over.

Battaglia led the Hurricanes with ten points in six games, while Brind’Amour and Cole pitched in seven apiece. In the 8-2 clincher in Game 6 - a game the Hurricanes led 5-0 in the first period and 8-1 at the second intermission - the BBC Line contributed nine points, three apiece, including Cole’s opener on the first shift of the game.

All the experience the Hurricanes had in overtime, what with their 16 ties, came in handy in the Eastern Conference final. Of the Canes’ four wins, three came in overtime, including back-to-back overtime wins in Games 2 and 3 that got the Hurricanes aimed in the right direction after the Leafs stole Game 1 in Raleigh. After a 1-0 Curtis Joseph shutout in Game 5, the Hurricanes went back to Toronto and had to rely on Irbe to get them over the hump.

A scoreless tie was broken by O’Neill halfway through the third period, and Irbe held the fort for 59-plus minutes, but Mats Sundin sent it to overtime again when he scored with 23 seconds remaining. Eight minutes into the extra session, Martin Gelinas sent the Hurricanes to the Final with a goal that looked suspiciously like the one that Brock McGinn scored 17 years later, and an all-timer of an astonished call by ESPN’s Steve Levy to mark the occasion:

Behind the net, stolen away, centering feed - they score! Martin Gelinas wins it in sudden-death overtime! And it is strange, but true. Folks - the Carolina Hurricanes are going to the Stanley Cup Final. (pause) Wow.

The Hurricanes were a decided underdog against the Red Wings juggernaut, and for good reason - the top eight scorers on the 2001-02 Wings, plus the starting goalie, would all go on to make the Hall of Fame, and a 51-win, 116-point steamroller was duly expected to take care of business in short order against an overachieving bunch that took advantage of chaos elsewhere in the bracket. But the “Red Wings in three” jokes quickly went out the window when Francis, who led the team with 16 points in the playoffs, gave the Canes a 1-0 series lead 58 seconds into (what else?) overtime of Game 1.

That set the table for the Wings to take Game 2 in Detroit, and a historic Game 3 that entered the record books. The third-longest game in Stanley Cup Final history nearly didn’t make it anywhere near that point after O’Neill gave Carolina a third-period lead, but the Canes’ penchant for giving up late goals burned them again when Brett Hull tied the game with 1:18 remaining.

Two scoreless overtime periods later, the game finally ended just after 1 a.m. when the ageless Igor Larionov put the Wings’ 53rd shot past Irbe and gave the Wings a series lead they wouldn’t relinquish. With 54:47 of the game played in overtime, the Game 3 epic sits behind only the 55:13 played before Petr Klima scored for the Oilers in Game 1 of the 1990 Final and the 54:51 that led to the Dallas Stars’ Stanley Cup win in 1999 - also a game that saw Hull figure somewhat prominently. The Hurricanes to a man thought Game 3 was their chance - if they had taken a 2-1 series lead, they were convinced, the Cup would have been theirs.

It was, four years later, although with a significantly changed lineup. Just seven players who experienced the disappointment of 2002 hung around long enough to reach the top of the mountain in 2006, but the groundwork was laid by a team with a plausible claim to be the best Hurricanes team to not win a title.