Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor
BOSTON --Carolina caught Game 7 magic again.
Scott Walker, the most-hated Cane in TD Banknorth Garden during Thursday night's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal after his run-in with Boston defenseman Aaron Ward in Game 5, fired a Ray Whitney rebound over a sprawled Tim Thomas with 1:14 remaining in the first overtime to give Carolina a 3-2 win. It was Walker's first goal in 25 career playoff games.
"We just want to play as many games as possible in the playoffs for experience," a smiling Carolina forward Chad LaRose said.
All joking aside, Carolina has made Game 7 its domain in the recent past. The odds were stacked against the 'Canes after they were blown out by Boston in each of the past two games after taking a 3-1 series lead. Boston, the home team, supposedly had all the momentum.
But Carolina is making a habit of debunking myths about momentum in these playoffs. Thursday night was no different.
"We've got a good group of character guys that never give up," said center Eric Staal, the Game 7 hero in the first round against New Jersey. "We wanted to get it done in Games 5 and 6, obviously, but it didn't happen for us. Tonight, our backs were against the wall, in a tough building, against a very good team and we stuck to our game plan and stuck with it. I thought we deserved tonight's win."
It was Carolina's fourth-straight Game 7 victory, dating back to the run to the 2006 Stanley Cup, and earned the Hurricanes a trip to the Eastern Conference Final, where they will play the Pittsburgh Penguins for the right to play in the Stanley Cup Final.
A revolving cast of characters has delivered the sixth-seeded Hurricanes to hockey's Final Four.
In Game 7 against New Jersey, Jussi Jokinen scored the tying goal with 80 seconds left in regulation and Staal delivered the winning goal 48 seconds later in one of the most unforgettable endings in hockey history, Matt Cullen scored a shorthanded goal in Game 2 to key a 3-0 victory that evened the series. Jokinen scored in overtime to win Game 3 and got the winner in the third period of Game 4.
On Thursday night, Scott Walker stepped into the hero's role. Playing on the top line for the first time in the series, he was, perhaps, the hardest-working guy on the ice, seemingly spurred on by the hostile reception he faced from the Bruin faithful still upset about his punch to the face of a defenseless Aaron Ward late in Game 5.
All Walker's hard work paid off when he went to the net on a rush by Whitney in the waning moments of the first OT -- with the crowd and maybe some of the players already focusing on a second extra period. He pounced on a juicy rebound, knocking it out of the air and past an otherwise-brilliant Thomas to end the series in a flash and silence an arena that had been rocking since Milan Lucic scored early in the third period to make it 2-2.
"Not a better guy deserved that goal than Scotty," Staal said. "He's been through a lot in the last little bit, but he competes every game. That's his nature. He stayed with it, kept at it and tonight he was ferocious. He was all over the forecheck and was a big help on our line and deserved that goal."
Carolina's penchant for late goals, says Carolina coach Paul Maurice, comes from his team's willingness to play one-goal, nail-biting games. It has been doing just that since January as it made a frantic push into the playoffs.
"The tighter that game was tonight, the better it was for us," he said. "You get used to it when you live in it."
It's easy to live on the razor's edge that Carolina now calls home when you have a goaltender like Cam Ward as a last line of defense. Ward, now 4-0 in Game 7s, stopped all 16 Boston shots after Lucic scored to tie the game and finished with 34 saves
"You can give up some shots, because you know he is going to make that save," Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen said. "The starting point for our whole team is because Cam is in the net and he gives that confidence to that whole team.
Ward may have been the starting point for Carolina's victory in Game 7, but it was Walker that delivered the finish, a stunning blow that ended the Stanley Cup dreams of the top-seeded Bruins.
"You battle like that all year and it comes down to one goal, one shot," said Boston's Byron Bitz, who scored his first playoff goal to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead. "It's like a knife in the heart."
Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour was not producing goals in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but nobody was questioning his work ethic. Thursday night, that work ethic paid off when Brind'Amour, out at the tail end of a power play, picked himself up from a big hit by Patrice Bergeron and then found a seam between defensemen Zdeno Chara and Aaron Ward to tip in Dennis Seidenberg's shot, just as P.J. Axelsson emerged from the penalty box.
All three of Milan Lucic's goals in these playoffs -- including the one that sent the game into OT -- have come in the past five games. Lucic's size and speed proved to be a deadly combination as he finished with 3 goals, 6 points and a plus-8 rating. He also had 23 hits in the series.
Entering tonight's game, the Carolina Hurricanes had allowed the first goal in eight of their 13 postseason games, coming back twice to earn wins in those eight contests. Boston had only blown a lead once, in seven instances, when scoring the first goal of a game in the 2009 postseason.
Boston was dominant in the faceoff circle, winning 42 of 77 draws (57 percent), but could not turn that advantage into a decisive goal. It was Carolina's worst performance of the series in the faceoff circle.
Entering overtime on Thursday, Boston held a 2-1 record in Game 7 overtimes, beating Buffalo in their last one in 1983. Carolina was 0-2, losing to Montreal in 1986 and 1992 while the franchise was based in Hartford.
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