As one of the players who started initially with the Whalers, Jeff O’Neill was a founding and long-time member of the Carolina Hurricanes. By virtue of his seven seasons and strong offensive production wearing #92 in a Hurricanes uniform, he sits near the top of leader board for many Canes stats. As of writing this in August 2015, he ranks sixth with 536 games played, second with 176 goals and fourth with 359 scoring points.
During the Greensboro years, Jeff O’Neill was a young scorer still finding his way. With experience and mentorship from Gary Roberts, his game matured just in time for the arrival of playmaker Ron Francis for the 1998-99 season. Jeff O’Neill and Ron Francis built chemistry, and Jeff O’Neill’s scoring totals surged as a result. O’Neill became the sniper to go with Ron Francis’ passing, Batman and Robin if you will. After a couple seasons of steady progress, the 2000-01 season yielded a goal-scoring explosion of 41 tallies in O’Neill’s breakout campaign. He followed that with two consecutive seasons of more than 30 goals. The scoring duo led the Canes first line and power play scoring on the good Canes teams from the early 2000s that saw back-to-back playoff berths in 2000-01 and 2001-02.
In addition to staking a claim amongst the Canes goal-scoring greats and climbing the team’s offensive leader board, Jeff O’Neill also played a huge role in the Canes first playoff successes. In the 2001 playoffs, he was part of an undermanned crew that rose up from a three-game deficit to win games four and five and salvage hockey goodness from the jaws of a near sweep in the first playoff series in Raleigh. He scored the game-winner in game five that set up an incredibly special game six in Raleigh that was also instrumental in building the unique bond between the team and its fan base. Despite game six’s finish in a series-clinching loss, the fan base had embraced the team’s unrelenting determination and ‘never say die’ attitude. This ending to the 2000-01 season set the stage for even greater things one year later. And by the close of the 2000-01 season, Jeff O’Neill had staked out a claim to being one of the best pure snipers in the league.
He also factored in significantly in the magical 2002 playoff run to the Stanley Cup Finals that truly put NHL hockey on the map in Raleigh and engraved on the hearts of its emerging fan base. He led the team with eight goals in those playoffs and got better as the pressure built deeper into the playoffs. He scored three of his eight goals in the Eastern Conference Finals series win against the Toronto Maple Leafs and three more in the 5-game Stanley Cup Finals series versus the Detroit Red Wings. When the 2002 playoffs were over, O’Neill contributed at least one heroic scoring play for each round of the playoffs. The collection of highlights included scoring with just 1:29 left in regulation to send a pivotal game five in the first round to overtime (where the Canes won). In the second round of the playoffs against Montreal, he assisted on Niclas Wallin’s overtime game-winning goal in possibly the most stunning game in Hurricanes playoff history. The Canes climb from a 3-0 deficit in the third period and overtime win was dubbed the “Miracle at Molson.” The Canadiens never recovered as the Canes stormed to two more wins to close out the series. This game was also played a significant role in establishing the “Cardiac Canes” moniker to describe the team’s uncanny ability to regularly win tight games late and in stunning fashion. Arguably Jeff O’Neill’s most memorable playoff heroics came in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals in versus Toronto. In the first period, he caught a puck in the eye but in true playoff hockey form, trudged forward. The cameras loved it, so the TV broadcast for the rest of the game featured a subplot of the continued swelling, discoloration and painful stuff the trainer was doing to O’Neill’s eye. The game ended with Jeff O’Neill scoring the game-winner in overtime making the game an instant and permanent part of Carolina Hurricanes lore. In the Stanley Cup Finals versus Detroit, Jeff O’Neill scored the game-tying goal and assisted on Ron Francis’ overtime game-winner to stake the Canes to a 1-0 series lead. Finally, in the first Stanley Cup Finals game in Raleigh, O’Neill scored a huge go ahead goal nearly midway through the third period. If not for a heart-breaking late goal by Brett Hull and an overtime loss, O’Neill’s goal would have tilted the series in the Canes favor and pushed the series to at least six games. When the 2002 playoffs ended, Jeff O’Neill had led his team in goals with eight including more than his fair share of memorable ones.
The visual memory of Jeff O’Neill is twofold. First, he will always be remembered with his bluish-purple eye swollen completely shut at the point when he scored the overtime game-winner versus Toronto in the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. On a less dramatic note, Canes fans from the early years can easily picture him banging bodies on the forecheck and then receiving a Francis pass and firing a laser of a one-timer for a goal. If you looked up “Hurricanes goal scorer” in the franchise’s early days, #92’s picture is the one you would expect to find.