The 2002 Stanley Cup Finals between the Carolina Hurricanes and Detroit Red Wings
Once upon a time, there was a hockey team trying to build a hockey community in North Carolina. The team made huge strides doing exactly that in 2002. By virtue of an against all odds run through the Stanley Cup playoffs, the team won a lifelong commitment from many fans and also the hearts of many more local sports fans. The pinnacle of it all was an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. Shortly after the Hurricanes defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference Finals, the schedule was set. The Carolina Hurricanes and Raleigh, North Carolina would be at the center of the hockey universe on June 8 and 10 when the Stanley Cup Finals made its first stop in North Carolina. The Hurricanes were scheduled to play the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings who boasted a roster that had 9 eventual Hall of Fame players with a tenth (Pavel Datsyuk) likely to be added and Hall of Fame coach Scottie Bowman to boot.
But when Hurricanes captain Ron Francis scored an overtime game-winner to steal game 1 in Detroit setting the series up to return to Raleigh tied at 1-1, the 2-game set against Detroit immediately became the biggest hockey games to be played in Raleigh on June 8 and 10 in 2002.
For me, the first Stanley Cup Final game ever played in Raleigh went down as the most memorable (in a good way mostly in retrospect) loss in Hurricanes history. In a tight game, the good guys had the Detroit juggernaut on the ropes when Jeff O’Neill scored 7:34 into the third period to give the Hurricanes a 2-1 lead. The Canes held on and held on and held on until a Brett Hull deflection with only 1:14 remaining in the third period tied the game and let the air of out the then Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena (ESA). Detroit would go on to win the game 14 minutes and 47 seconds into the third overtime past 1am. To this day, I say that if the Hurricanes had won game 3 they would have also won game 4 riding the high that made up for fatigue and would then have had 3 chances to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Another big set of 2 games against Detroit in 2017
Fast forward very nearly 15 years to today and an odd scheduling quick driven by the meltdown earlier this season sees another absolutely huge back-to-back set in Raleigh against the Detroit Red Wings. The Hurricanes have won a Stanley Cup since then and many seasons have passed, but interestingly, I think it is fair to say that the Hurricanes hockey community is trying to build itself up again sort of like a second rising.
As far as the game goes, the Hurricanes come into the game riding a 10-game point streak (7-0-3) including an impressive 3-0-1 mark on the road in their last 4 games. But there is significant work still to do to push over the top in 2016-17. The Monday/Tuesday doubleheader against Detroit is part of 4 straight home games that offer the best chance to climb the last couple rungs of the ladder. With ground still to make up, only 9 games to do so and no margin for error, calling Monday’s game against Detroit a huge one is an understatement. Despite being out of the playoff picture, the Red Wings actually enter the game playing fairly well. They enter with a 4-1-1 record in their past 6 games including an impressive overtime win against Minnesota on Sunday. The set of 2 against the Hurricanes will be part of an unheard of 3 games in 3 days for the Red Wings after playing and traveling on Sunday. The regular NHL schedule will not actually allow 3 in 3, but because of limited options to reschedule, the league and the team signed off on the exception.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Hurricanes versus the Detroit Red Wings (round 1)
Against that backdrop, here is what I’m watching for Monday night…
1) A physical advantage?
In a jam-packed month of hockey including these last 2 weeks, 1 concern I have is the Hurricanes physically hitting a wall like they did last Sunday in Philadelphia. With no margin for error, 1 or 2 of those games could spell the end of the season. But the 2-game set against Detroit actually lines up favorably for the Hurricanes. They at least had Sunday off and should get some additional energy from the combination of winning and desperately needing to win more. Meanwhile Detroit will try to muster energy for 3 games in 3 days in a situation in which the games really do not matter for them. Early in Monday’s contest, I will be watching closely to see if the Hurricanes show any sign of tightening up with the increasing pressure, or if instead they ride momentum, have more jump and can be the aggressor on the way to a big win.
2) The offensive stars
Jeff Skinner continues to surge. Sebastian Aho has shown a knack for coming up big in a couple of the biggest games of the season. Elias Lindholm just keeps chugging along creating offense every game. He is now on the score sheet in 10 straight. This juncture in the season often sees teams still with something to play for start clutching the sticks a bit tight which can lead to difficulty scoring and tense games with no margin for error that can turn badly on 1 bounce. I vote strongly for a continued scoring surge by a couple of the Hurricanes’ scoring leaders such that they can jump out early and win going away.
3) Peters’ shuffling
Bill Peters line and defense pair shuffling has been in overdrive of late. It is hard to question anything based on the results, but I am not sure I understand it. On Monday, I will be watching to see what Peters does with the combinations. Will he go back to the old standby Slavin/Pesce and build behind that on the blue line? At forward, who plays where? We have seen Aho and Lindholm take turns at center only to find their way back at wing. We have also seen all kinds of line combinations. I will be watching early to see what Peters starts with in terms of combinations and also if those stick throughout the game.
Very nearly 15 years after biggest set of 2 games against Detroit in Raleigh, the puck drops on the first of 2 more franchise-turning games at about 7:07pm at PNC Arena.