Canes can call on experience

Playoffs 'like climbing Mount Everest'

Staff WriterApril 13, 2009 

— There is no shortage of Stanley Cup rings between the Carolina Hurricanes and the New Jersey Devils.

The Canes have 10 players with rings and the Devils 11. They're the players who have successfully fought through four playoff series, won 16 games, been there on that last night in June with their bushy playoff beards and broad smiles and finally lifted the Cup in celebration and exultation.

It's experience that's hard-won, that will be invaluable when the Canes and Devils begin their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series this week at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

The Canes' Rod Brind'Amour, Eric Staal, Cam Ward and and Erik Cole have it, to name a few. So do the Devils' Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner, to name a few.

"It's like climbing Mount Everest," Brind'Amour said of winning the Cup.

Then there are those who have no NHL playoff experience to lean on. Among the Canes, that includes forward Tuomo Ruutu and defensemen Tim Gleason and Anton Babchuk, although Babchuk might deserve an asterisk.

A member of the 2006 Canes, Babchuk has his name on the Stanley Cup but was not on the ice for any of the playoff games.

What will it be like for the newbies? Cole easily can recall the emotions of his first playoff series -- against the Devils in 2002.

"It borders on the nervous, excited line," he said. "I think that how much you can take it as excitement, how much you can take it as nervousness, that will determine your mind-set going in.

"But it is intense. It's something you have to be ready for right from the start."

In 2002, for Cole facing the Devils meant dealing with defenseman Scott Stevens, then a brutally tough character and now an NHL Hall of Famer.

"I was pretty nervous heading into it, for sure," Cole said. "It's one of those experiences where you have to be focused for the full 60 minutes or more. It requires a lot of intensity and a lot of work ethic."

Seven years later, it will require more of the same as the Canes make their first playoff appearance since the Cup year. Carolina won three of four games against the Devils this season, but each game had a different storyline.

In the first, Devils coach Brent Sutter was facing a Carolina team with his son, Brandon, playing as a rookie fourth-line center. Brodeur was out with an elbow injury, and the Canes won 3-2 in that Jan. 6 matchup at the RBC Center.

The teams didn't play again until March 18, again at the RBC Center. It was the game after Brodeur had notched his 552nd win, breaking Patrick Roy's career record for goaltending victories, and Brodeur had the night off. The Canes won again 4-2.

It wasn't until March 28 that both teams had their top goaltenders -- Ward and Brodeur -- in the game. Carolina scored two late goals for a 2-1 win at the Prudential Center.

Finally, on Saturday afternoon, the season series ended with the Devils winning 3-2 at The Rock. Brodeur was in net. After 28 straight starts, Ward had the day off, blowing bubble-gum bubbles on the bench while backup Michael Leighton got his first start since Feb. 5.

Though they didn't know at the time, the Canes and Devils were on a collision course in the playoffs. It's almost as if Carolina's equipment managers -- Wally Tatomir, Skip Cunningham and Bob Gorman -- could have left all the gear at The Rock and saved themselves some trouble.

New Jersey has won a franchise-record 51 games, has a 45-goal scorer in Zach Parise, is the Atlantic Division winner and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes, in turn, went 13-1-2 in a scintillating stretch to clinch a playoff berth before losing the last two regular-season games to close with a 45-30-7 record.

"I think they're going to be really, really excited to get to the playoffs," Canes coach Paul Maurice said of his players. "But not as a backdoor team or as a just-made-it team.

"Ninety-seven points put us in the mix of the top 10 teams in the league. We're going to hit a team that over the course of the season has shown to be better than we are, but by the end of the season we feel we're in that mix. So we have some confidence but certainly don't have any arrogance."

They also have a few rings.

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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