June 3, 2006

Stage set for Stanley Cup

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - A Stanley Cup final between the
Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes may not be the matchup
the NHL hoped for to cap off the league's season.

But the best-of-seven championship final starting in
Raleigh on Monday between the two small market powerhouses
confirms that the painful labor dispute that wiped out the
entire 2004-05 season accomplished what it was designed to

As a result the game's financing and rules making have been
radically overhauled to make it possible for every team to
challenge for Lord Stanley's silver mug.

After years of selling off high-priced talent just to
survive another season, the money-conscious Oilers suddenly
found themselves buyers not sellers in the NHL's new market

With the salary cap leveling the financial playing field,
the community owned team embarked on a giddy off-season
spending spree laying the foundation for their Stanley Cup bid
by acquiring all-star defenceman and playoff MVP candidate
Chris Pronger and forward Michael Peca.

The Oilers most important acquisition, however, was one
they made at the trade deadline by picking up well-traveled
netminder Dwayne Roloson from the Minnesota Wild.

The veteran has provided a steady, dependable presence in
the Edmonton goal and is also making a bid for playoff MVP
honors with 12 post-season wins.

"Obviously the lockout really benefited smaller market
teams, acquiring guys like Pronger and Peca and Rolly at the
deadline," Edmonton forward Ryan Smyth, who had survived the
lean years with the NHL's smallest market team, told reporters.
"It gives us the level playing field.

"Once you get that opportunity to compete you never know
what can happen.

"We made it this far but we still have a long way to go


After squeaking into the post-season as the eighth seed,
the Oilers have knocked off the top seeded Detroit Red Wings
followed by series wins over San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Mighty
Ducks to claim the Western conference title.

Back in the championship for the first time since 1990, the
Oilers will also enjoy the support of a hockey-mad country as
they attempt to become the first Canadian team to win the Cup
since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.

Despite some recent lean years, the Oilers need only look
to the rafters of the Rexall Place to be inspired and reminded
of the team's glory days when Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier
were leading Edmonton to Stanley Cup titles.

The Hurricanes will be making their second appearance in
the Stanley Cup finals in the last four years but struggle for
attention in the NASCAR-loving, college basketball-mad south.

"I got here five or six years ago, the first game was,
what, 6,000 people in the rink and there wasn't a lot of
excitement in the game," Carolina captain and inspirational
leader Rod Brind'Amour told reporters.

"Obviously we started a new thing down here. Hockey didn't

"It's taken a little time, but really in a relatively short
period this organization has had a tremendous amount of success
and the people here now have embraced the team and the game."

After dropping the opening two games of their first round
playoff series to the Montreal Canadiens, Carolina had looked
headed to an early exit.

But the gritty Hurricanes rebounded behind the brilliant
play of rookie netminder Cam Ward sweeping the next four games
from the Canadiens then going on to eliminate the New Jersey

To advance to the finals, the Hurricanes needed seven
gruelling games to push aside the Buffalo Sabres and now host
the well-rested Oilers, who have not played in eight days.

Strangely it will be the first meeting between the two
teams in almost 2-1/2 years.

"I'm not sure people expected us to be here but I know we
did, and I know that's one of the key differences from teams
past is right from day one this year (we knew)," said
Brind'Amour. "I think going into the finals this time around,
we don't feel like a huge underdog.

"I think we have a real confident feeling about our team
and all we're capable of doing."