When it comes to sports, Tobacco Road is known mainly for its basketball, particularly that of North Carolina and Duke. But the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes gave the region a memorable spring where hockey was pre-eminent. The Hurricanes followed a strong regular season by winning the franchise’s first and only Stanley Cup.
Carolina was built primarily on its offense. 21-year-old center Eric Stall scored 45 goals and dished 55 assists, as he led an attack that finished third in the NHL in goals scored. Justin Williams and Rod Brind’Amour were 30-goal scorers, as was Erik Cole.
The Hurricanes struggled defensively, finished 18th in the league. The problem was in the net, and over the course of the season, 21-year-old Cam Ward eventually supplanted Martin Gerber as the starting goalie. Carolina still got enough defense to go 52-22-8, win the Southeast Division and earn the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Carolina’s postseason had an inauspicious beginning, with two losses to the Montreal Canadiens. The Hurricanes stormed back to win four consecutive games and advance. The momentum continued in the second round, as Carolina beat New Jersey 6-0 to open the series and cruised to the conference finals in five games.
The Buffalo Sabres had upset the East’s top seed, the Ottawa Senators, so it would be Buffalo-Carolina for the Eastern Conference championship. The Sabres grabbed the first game by 3-2 count. Carolina answered with a 4-3 win in Game 2 that wasn’t as close as it looked—the Hurricanes led 4-1 in the third period and Buffalo’s final goal came with three seconds left.
Carolina traveled north, and Ward played his worst game of the playoffs in Game 3, being chased from the game and in spite of two goals from Cory Stillman, Carolina lost 4-3. Gerber got the start in Game 4 and whatever problems the veteran had in the regular season, he paid for them in full with this game. Gerber saved all 22 shots fired at home and Carolina tied the series with a 4-zip win.
The next two games were overtime affairs. Playing in front of the home crowd in Game 5, Carolina trailed 3-2 with ten minutes to play. Brind’Amour scored a power play goal to tie it, and Stillman converted another power play in OT. Carolina tried a similar path in Game 6, tying the game with four minutes left, but this time it was Buffalo who won in overtime.
Game 7 was back in Carolina, and the Hurricanes found themselves trailing 2-1 after two periods. Stillman again came up big, with two third-period assists in a three-goal flurry that sent Carolina to the Finals with a 4-2 win.
The Western Conference had been gutted by upsets, and the 2006 Edmonton Oilers shocked everyone by winning the conference as an 8-seed. It was the Oilers’ first time in the Finals since the Wayne Gretzky/Mark Messier period that saw the franchise win five Stanley Cups from 1984-90. If Carolina was going to win the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals they were going to have to beat a team that seemed to have destiny riding with them.
Game 1 was a roller-coaster, with Carolina jumping out to a 3-0 lead, blowing it and sitting in a 4-4 tie late in the third period. Brind’Amour scored with 32 seconds left to win it. Game 2 went much easier, as Carolina scored three power play goals, Ward saved all 25 shots he saw and the Hurricanes won 5-0.
The series went to Edmonton, and while the Oilers got a 2-1 win to make it a series, Carolina answered with a victory by the same score that seemed to give the Hurricanes firm control of the Finals.
With a chance to clinch in front of the home fans, Carolina might have come out tight, because Edmonton peppered them for three first period goals in Game 5. The Hurricanes rallied behind two goals from Staal and eventually forced overtime, but the Oilers won 4-3 and kept the series going.
Game 6 was a defensive disaster, and it wasn’t all about the goalie. Ward was exposed to 34 shots, as Edmonton rolled to a 4-0 win. Destiny was still alive and heading back to Tobacco Road for a Game 7.
The Hurricanes would win a seventh game that was good, but not epic. They led a tight 2-1 game before an empty net goal with a minute left made it permissible to start the celebration. Brind’Amour finished the playoffs with 12 goals. Staal had 19 postseason assists. But the star was Ward, who allowed just 2.14 goals per game in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs and was named the winner of the Conn Smythe Award as postseason MVP.
For one glorious spring, the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes had turned their home region into hockey country.