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Backed Up by The Wall

Stanley Cup finals: For Hurricanes to have a chance against the heavily-favored Red Wings, they will need a superior series from Irbe.


DETROIT — Not too many people are giving Carolina much of a chance against the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals, which begin tonight at Joe Louis Arena.

That does not mean the Hurricanes feel the same way. Not in this year of upsets. The New England Patriots, Arizona Diamondbacks and Senegal were all major underdogs but that did not stop them from winning.

Carolina's biggest problem is that the Red Wings know this too.

"I told the team it's not about being overconfident," Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman said on Monday. "It is about how you are to play when the game starts ... they are going to face a team that had 27 overtime games during the season; they have had 18 playoff games.

"When people say this team is better than this team; it doesn't mean a darn thing. You have to go and do it. I have been on both sides ... We have swept the last two times [in Stanley Cup final wins over Washington and Philadelphia] but we also got swept [by New Jersey] in '95."

It's easy to see why the Red Wings are so heavily favored.

Detroit is an Original Six NHL franchise with arguably the league's largest following.

In contrast, Carolina's history is short and sweet.

The Hurricanes were an original World Hockey Assn. franchise founded in 1972 and based in Boston as the New England Whalers. The team later moved to Springfield, Mass., then became the Hartford Whalers when the franchise joined the NHL in 1979. Then in 1997, owner Peter Karmanos moved the team to North Carolina and changed the name to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Whereas Detroit has won nine Stanley Cups and has reached the finals 22 times, the Hurricanes have never come close to a championship.

In fact, the franchise's most famous player is Gordie Howe, who began his NHL career in Detroit in 1946 and finished it with the Whalers in 1980, at age 52.

But the way Carolina captain Ron Francis sees it, history has to start somewhere.

"I think you have to have success to earn that respect," said Francis, who broke into the NHL with Hartford in 1981. "You look back a short while ago, people used to laugh at the New Jersey franchise and look where they are today.

"I think as a team and as an organization and our city that we want to continue to make steps in the right direction and I think we're starting to do that the last couple of years, and certainly the more success we have, the more respect we'll get. So it's up to us to go out there and play as hard as we can and try to generate more success."

The Hurricanes understand that pulling off an upset will be easier said than done.

They have not won in Detroit since the 1989-90 season, when they were still the Whalers. They are 4-16 against the Red Wings in the last 10 years, including two losses this season.

The Hurricanes finished the regular season with 91 points--good enough to win the Southeast Division but not good enough to even qualify for the playoffs had they been in the Western Conference. They know that the best way to get the respect they desire is to upset Detroit, which had the league's best record and 25 more points than Carolina.

"We want to be winners and respect comes from winning, so it all ties together, one way or another," said Carolina goaltender Arturs Irbe, who has a playoff-best 1.41 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. "Win, and then everything else will come."

Carolina begins Game 1 tonight a much different team than the one the Red Wings faced twice before Thanksgiving. The Hurricanes can play defense and their confidence is high after rolling through the Eastern Conference with playoff wins over New Jersey, Montreal and Toronto.

The turning point for the Hurricanes came when they traded defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh to Florida.

"Ozolinsh was like a riverboat gambler who was more of an end-to-end rusher," said Detroit winger Brendan Shanahan, who played for Hartford early in his career. "Then they brought in Sean Hill, who is an effective offensive player and pretty steady defensive man as well, and [Bret] Hedican, who is a solid, reliable defenseman. That just settled things down for them and that's why you saw a lot of low-scoring games. It hasn't just been their goaltending."

But Carolina will face a much tougher offense in the Red Wings, who have a lineup boiling over with goal scorers.

With a majority of players remaining from the Stanley Cup championship teams of 1997 and 1998, Detroit does not have a problem scoring. Just ask Colorado, which was blitzed, 7-0, Friday in the most lopsided Game 7 in NHL history.

The Red Wings have depth and balance with four interchangeable lines. Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, the list of scorers goes on and on. Darren McCarty, who often skates on the fourth line, scored four goals against the Avalanche in the Western Conference finals.

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