GAME: Edmonton Oilers at Carolina Hurricanes
PLAYOFF SERIES: Stanley Cup finals, Game 1
TIME: Monday, 8 p.m. EST.
When the Edmonton Oilers acquired high-scoring defenseman Chris Pronger after the lockout, he was seen as a key in getting back to the playoffs. The addition of a 36-year-old journeyman goaltender has now allowed them to play for hockey's ultimate prize.
With Dwayne Roloson in net, Edmonton meets the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C.
After seeing Ty Conklin, Michael Morrison and Jussi Markkanen all struggle in net, Edmonton acquired Roloson on March 8 from Minnesota for a first-round draft choice and a conditional pick. But Roloson didn't make the best first impression on his new team, allowing 13 goals in losing his first three games.
Playing for the Wild under Jacques Lemaire, Roloson was part of a rotating goaltender system with Manny Fernandez. In a meeting with new coach Craig MacTavish, Roloson said he needed to get back to playing regularly to be at his best.
"I told him I had only played three games since January and it was going to take me some time to play the way I know how to play," Roloson said. "He said, 'We've got 20 games and that's all we have to worry about, to get the playoff spot."'
Roloson's 2.42 goals-against average and .905 save percentage were the best among Edmonton's goalies, but he managed only an 8-7-4 record - still good enough to get the Oilers into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
He has started every playoff game, backstopping Edmonton to an upset of Stanley Cup favorite Detroit. Roloson then shut down San Jose's high-scoring duo of Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo before helping to defeat Anaheim in five games.
"Our goaltending is well documented," MacTavish said. "It's been exceptional."
Edmonton has advanced farther than any eighth seed since the NHL adopted the current postseason format in 1994, but Roloson has not been the only reason for Edmonton's unexpected success.
Pronger led the Oilers with 13 postseason assists and is tied with Shawn Horcoff for the team lead with 17 points. Edmonton native Fernando Pisani, an 18-goal scorer during the regular season, has a team-high nine in the playoffs.
"I wouldn't feel that we're overachieving," said left wing Ryan Smyth, who led the Oilers with 36 goals in the regular season. "I just think we've got some well-rounded depth on our hockey team and it's just a matter of getting an opportunity once you get in the playoffs, and we're making the most of it right now."
Carolina goaltender Cam Ward also has made the most of an opportunity. His rookie season was spent as a backup to Swiss Olympian Martin Gerber.
The postseason, however, has belonged to the surburban Edmonton native.
The 22-year-old Ward was the Hurricanes' first-round selection in 2002 after Carolina's loss to Detroit in five games in its only other Stanley Cup appearance. He recorded 14 regular-season wins as a rookie, but has played like a seasoned veteran as the second-seeded 'Canes dispatched Montreal and New Jersey before defeating a scrappy Buffalo team in seven games.
Ward, 11-5 with a 2.07 GAA in the postseason, is expected to get the start from head coach Peter Laviolette. That would make Ward the youngest goalie to start a finals game since Patrick Roy with Montreal in 1986.
Laviolette said the first reports he got about Ward from his assistant coaches and the team's minor-league club in Lowell, Mass., was that the youngster had some special qualities.
"The word was that his demeanor was very calm. He didn't get rattled very often," Laviolette said. "And he came up and he's been like that all year, regardless of the situation or the circumstances. It's been the same."
Carolina also boasts the league's leading playoff scorer in Eric Staal. Though he was held off the scoresheet in the final two games of the series against the Sabres, the 21-year-old center has scored 20 points - all coming in a 15-game points streak.
Earlier in the regular season, Carolina added veteran depth on offense by picking up center Doug Weight from St. Louis and Mark Recchi from Pittsburgh in separate trades. Recchi won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 1991, but the 35-year-old Weight is making his first finals appearance.
"I came in and just didn't want to disrupt anything," said Weight, who played with Edmonton from 1992-2001. "These guys were a great team before, and I told everybody I'm here to fit in and become a cog in the wheel."
While Carolina has more recent experience in Stanley Cup play, Edmonton has a wealth to draw upon. General manager Kevin Lowe, coach MacTavish and assistants Charlie Huddy and Craig Simpson combined to win 17 titles, most coming with the Oilers' teams led by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in the 1980s.
The Oilers are playing for their sixth Stanley Cup and first since 1990 when they defeated Boston. Only Montreal (23), Toronto (13) and Detroit (10) have won more championships.
Edmonton and Carolina share roots in the World Hockey Association, when the Oilers and Hartford Whalers were among four teams absorbed by the NHL in 1979. But the Oilers and 'Canes have not met since Carolina posted a 3-2 road win in December 2003.
Monday's game also marks the Oilers' first visit to Raleigh since a 1-1 tie in November 2001.
Game 2 is scheduled for Wednesday in Raleigh.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Oilers - 95 points, 8th seed; beat Detroit Red Wings 4-2, Western Conference quarterfinals; beat San Jose Sharks 4-2, semifinals; beat Anaheim Mighty Ducks 4-1, finals. Hurricanes - 112 points, 2nd seed; beat Montreal Canadiens 4-2, Eastern Conference quarterfinals; beat New Jersey Devils 4-1, semifinals; beat Buffalo Sabres 4-3, finals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Oilers - Pisani, 9 goals; Pronger, 13 assists; Pronger and Horcoff, 17 points; Georges Laraque, 27 PIM. Hurricanes - Rod Brind'Amour, 9 goals; Staal, 13 assists and 20 points; Justin Williams, 30 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Oilers - Power play: 19.8 percent (19 for 96). Penalty killing: 88.5 percent (101 for 114). Hurricanes - Power play: 25.8 percent (22 for 85). Penalty killing: 83.6 percent (77 for 92).
GOALTENDERS: Oilers - Roloson (12-5, 1 SO, 2.22 GAA); Markkanen (NR). Hurricanes - Ward (11-5, 1, 2.07); Gerber (1-1, 1, 3.53).