Talk about an underdog story. The Carolina Hurricanes had punched their ticket to the Finals with hard work, grit, and guys. Yes, it all sounds cliché, and maybe it is, but that’s how they did it. Yes, they had some solid talent on their roster, but their matchup against the Red Wings was a tale of two payrolls.
The Hurricanes squeezed every ounce out of their $32 million payroll. Short of their 38-year-old captain, the team was light on star power, relying on a strong team game to win. On the other end of the spectrum, Detroit marched into the final series with a $66.6 million lineup.
Now, I realize that alone doesn’t signify money well spent (Glen Sather‘s tenure with the Rangers says “hello”), but just take a glance at their roster: Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Dominik Hasek, Pavel Datsyuk. The Hurricanes faced a steep challenge and they got off to a pretty good start.
Both teams traded goals through the first 40 minutes of Game One before clamping down in the third period. As regulation wound down, the tie held and the Hurricanes headed to overtime for the eighth time of the playoffs. The extra period wasn’t a record-breaker as, at just 58 seconds in, Francis scored the biggest goal in Hurricanes’ history at that time, beating Hasek and giving the underdogs a 1-0 series lead.
The Red Wings came back with a vengeance in Game Two, putting up three goals while holding Carolina to only 17 shots. The horn sounded with a 3-1 Detroit victory evening up the series as the teams trekked to Raleigh for Game Three and what would become an instant classic.
Another see-saw affair saw no winner after 60 minutes. The same held true after 80 and then 100 minutes. Halfway through the third overtime, you could forgive an onlooker from thinking that the game would never reach a conclusion. Instead of a combined 2002-03 Cup Final, Igor Larionov finally ended the contest and gave Detroit a 2-1 lead in the series.
This game was the turning point in the series. Had Carolina won, who knows how the rest of the series may have played out. The Red Wings’ victory made that a moot point and effectively ended the series.
Game Four was a 3-0 shutout, the Hurricanes seemingly drained by their deep, overtime riddled postseason run. Game Five yielded much the same result, although this time Jeff O’Neill broke another potential Hasek shutout.
That was it. The Red Wings hoisted The Cup and the Hurricanes were left to reflect on how close they had gotten. The loss stung for fans and players alike, as did the uncertainty of ever making it that far again.