In 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes were making their third postseason appearance in five years since moving to North Carolina. In round one they knocked off the defending Eastern Conference champions, the New Jersey Devils. In round two, they took out hockey royalty, eliminating the Montreal Canadiens in six games.
But in the Eastern Conference Final, the Canes would be thrust center stage, doing battle with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and all of the media attention and fanfare that come with that honor.
The Leafs were seeking their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since their last championship in 1967. After splitting games one and two in Raleigh, the Hurricanes took both games in Toronto before dropping game five at home, 1-0.
The teams faced off in game six in Toronto with the Leafs looking to carry their momentum and force a game seven in Raleigh. The series’ low scoring nature carried into game six, with neither team scoring in the opening two periods.
Then nearly 10 minutes into the third, Carolina broke the ice after Jeff O’Neill stripped future Hurricane Tomas Kaberle of the puck just inside the Toronto blue line, and burst in to beat Curtis Joseph.
Joseph actually gets a piece of O’Neill’s initial bid, but O’Neill leaps over a diving Bryan McCabe and taps in the rolling rebound.
The Kaberle giveaway is particularly egregious given the circumstances of the game, but it is not solely the Czech defenseman’s fault. With McCabe slow to get back, Kaberle does not have the option of making a D-to-D pass. With O’Neill fresh off the bench and taking a good angle, Kaberle opts not to skate further into his own end and risk getting hemmed in. Instead he opts to throw on the brakes and turn up ice, but fumbles the puck and O’Neill takes advantage.
From there the Hurricanes stuck to their defensive structure and entered the final minute of play with Arturs Irbe’s shutout still in tact.
With the Toronto net empty, Carolina failed to clear the zone on a number of different occasions.
With the extra skater, the Toronto point men are cheating deeper into the zone. Maple Leafs forward Alexander Mogilny gives the puck to Kaberle at the tops of the circles. Kaberle’s shot finds its way through and, after a net-mouth scramble, Mats Sundin buries the equalizer to send the game to overtime.
Kaberle’s offensive prowess was on full display, as he used a pump fake to move Ron Francis out of the shooting lane and then a quick shoulder shimmy to find a shooting lane around Rod Brind’Amour.
With Sean Hill battling with Gary Roberts, Bret Hedican takes on Darcy Tucker, but not before the Leaf winger can tap the puck to Sundin. Tucker would get an assist on the goal along with Kaberle.
The assist was Kaberle’s eighth of the 2002 playoffs, and marked his 10th and final point of that postseason campaign.
Once the game moved into overtime, the tight checking continued with neither team generating much offense. The eventual game-winning, series-clinching, goal would happen seemingly out of nowhere.
With 12 minutes to play in OT, Martin Gelinas fights off a back checker to put the puck in deep behind the Toronto net. The Leaf defenseman handles it well, smoothly moving it to Mogilny who picks his head up and looks for options. Mogilny then inexplicably flings the puck into the opposite corner where it is intercepted by Josef Vasicek and centered in front for the overtime winner to be scored by Gelinas.
It’s still unclear what exactly Mogilny was trying to accomplish by throwing the puck behind the net. There was no Maple Leaf anywhere near the far corner, and the puck did not have the force or geometry to rim around the boards up the other point.
With the puck shot right towards the official, Vasicek intercepts and quickly feeds the puck towards the top of the crease. Jaroslav Svboda is unable to get his stick on it and the puck feeds right to Gelinas, who beats Mogilny back to the net, to elevate.
Joseph, who had made 33 saves already, has the tall task of being in position to stop a Svboda shot and then the Gelinas bid once the puck gets through. With Cujo unable to make the save, the Maple Leafs ended the Eastern Conference Final scoring just six goals in as many games.
As for Carolina, they would advance to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance against another original six foe, the Detroit Red Wings. Unfortunately for the Canes, they would lose in five games.