RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Rod Brind'Amour was the faceoff-winning, penalty-killing rock in the Carolina Hurricanes' lineup all season.
Then he put them into the Stanley Cup finals.
The captain's goal snapped a third-period tie and sent the Hurricanes into the championship round Thursday night with a 4-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. It gave Carolina its second trip to the finals in four seasons.
Brind'Amour also assisted on Justin Williams' goal in the final minute to seal it, propelling the former Hartford Whalers into the finals against the five-time champion Edmonton Oilers. The small-market, best-of-seven matchup, helped by the NHL's new salary cap in this first post-lockout season, opens Monday in Raleigh.
The Hurricanes got plenty of steady performances to earn the franchise's first victory in a Game 7, from rookie Cam Ward's 22 saves to Williams' pair of assists on a three-point night. But ultimately, the focus afterward was on Brind'Amour, the 17-year veteran who is still looking for his first championship ring.
"He's been the heart and soul of this team," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "I don't like to talk about one individual player because it goes against what we believe in in the locker room. There were a lot of big performances tonight. But that typifies Rod Brind'Amour. "
Carolina led 1-0 but fell behind late in the second period when Doug Janik and Jochen Hecht scored goals for the injury-ravaged Sabres. After Doug Weight tied it at 2 early in the third, Brind'Amour and the Hurricanes broke through.
Ryan Miller stopped a shot from Cory Stillman, but couldn't control the rebound. It slid outside the crease and glided underneath Buffalo defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick, who apparently didn't see it while jostling with Williams.
It sat still and untouched for several tense seconds, giving Brind'Amour time to charge in from the right side and beat Miller at 11:22. That put the Hurricanes back on top in the franchise's first Game 7 since moving to North Carolina before the 1997-98 season.
Brind'Amour, who is headed to his third Cup finals, made a locker-room speech Wednesday following an overtime loss in Game 6. But true to his workmanlike attitude, he downplayed its significance while basking in the victory.
"They know what it's all about," he said of his teammates. "I just said I'm an old guy, and I just want another kick at it."
Mike Commodore gave Carolina its early lead, and Williams' goal finished off the Sabres, who nearly overcame the loss of four regular defensemen and playmaking center Tim Connolly. The loss was their first in 10 playoff games when leading after two periods.
"You can hold your head up and feel good about the way you played, the way you battled, the way you faced adversity," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Those guys in the room are a special group that never used an excuse all year long. Even tonight, gave it everything they absolutely had."
Few expected either team to even have this chance when the season began. The Hurricanes had missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons since making an unexpected run to the Cup finals in 2002, while the Sabres hadn't reached the postseason since 2001.
But with rule changes that sought to eliminate the defensive clutching and grabbing that bogged down scoring, these teams evolved into examples of what the post-lockout NHL hoped to be: fast-paced and offensive-minded in a financial framework that keeps team payrolls equitable.
The formula was enough to carry each to 52 regular-season wins - franchise records for both - and two rounds worth of playoff victories. They followed that with an intense series in which five of the first six games were decided by a goal and two that ended with power-play goals in overtime.
Now the second-seeded Hurricanes are moving on while the Sabres - the No. 4 seed in the East - head home with the empty feeling that a season's worth of hard work went unfulfilled.
"Obviously, it stings right now and it should," Buffalo co-captain Chris Drury said.
The fact that Buffalo was even in this game was a testament to the Sabres' character. They played without veteran defenseman Jay McKee, who was sidelined with a seriously infected cut on his shin. He joined scratches Teppo Numminen (hip flexor), Henrik Tallinder (broken left arm) and Dmitri Kalinin (ankle).
In addition, Connolly didn't play in the series due to a concussion sustained in the second round against Ottawa.
Still, Buffalo hung in behind the strong goaltending of the rookie Miller, who finished with 24 saves, and their fast-skating offense. But in the end, the Hurricanes were a little too deep - and healthy - to be denied on home ice.
Weight, whose penalty in overtime led to Daniel Briere's winning goal in Game 6, made amends with his tying goal early in the third period. He also assisted on Commodore's first-period tally, providing some of the veteran play the Hurricanes were looking for when they acquired him from St. Louis in January.
Now he's heading to his first Stanley Cup finals against the Oilers, with whom he spent nine of his 15 NHL seasons.
"I don't care about the goal, believe me," he said. "I care about winning, and it's exciting to win and be going somewhere I haven't gone yet."
Notes: Stillman extended his point streak with an assist on Brind'Amour's goal, giving him four goals and six assists in eight games. ... Janik's goal was his first career NHL point. ... D Nathan Paetsch made his NHL debut filling in for McKee, finishing with 12:06 of ice time. ... Carolina's Eric Staal went without a point for a second straight game after tallying a point in the previous 15.
Other games on June 1, 2006