These Canes are not the same as the '99 team

Staff writerMay 10, 2009 

— A decade ago, the Carolina Hurricanes went to Boston in an attempt to avoid elimination. Tonight, they are in Boston with a chance to advance.

So much has changed in the 10 years since that first NHL playoff series in North Carolina, one that ended in tragedy when defenseman Steve Chiasson died the morning after the team's season ended with a Game 6 loss to the Bruins. Yet for those involved, the pain of loss -- of a teammate and a series -- remains as raw as ever.

"There's only a few of us left, but that's never old," said Glen Wesley, a player then, a coach now. "It's always fresh in your mind, especially when you go against Boston in the playoffs. I think that's the first thing that comes back to your mind: That airplane ride back, then getting that phone call at 6 a.m."

Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice still says that series may have gone a different way had Ron Francis not turned his ankle in Game 1, and Martin Gelinas had a chance to win Game 5 in overtime before Anson Carter won it for the Bruins in double overtime.

Had either of those events transpired differently, perhaps Chiasson would still be alive today. But he is not, killed when he crashed his truck on Falls of Neuse Road in the early hours of the morning of May 3, 1999, after the team returned from Boston. He was 32.

The team gathered for a party at Gary Roberts' house in North Raleigh. Sometime before 4 a.m., Chiasson climbed into his Chevrolet pickup truck to drive home. He never made it.

Police later said he was going 74 mph when Chiasson lost control of his truck on a winding stretch of Falls of Neuse. It flipped, and he was not wearing a seat belt. City workers found him the next morning.

Ten years have passed. Chiasson's number is not officially retired due to the circumstances of Chiasson's death -- his blood-alcohol level was .27 percent, more than three times the legal limit -- but no one has worn his No. 3 since then.

Of the players on the ice in this series, only two participated in that one, both for the Bruins -- Hurricanes forward Sergei Samsonov and Bruins forward P.J. Axelsson. For Samsonov, that playoff series -- his second -- is a blur. For Canes fans, it's not much different.

It's difficult now, after four trips to the playoffs, two trips to the finals and a Stanley Cup, to recall the unique circumstances of that series. Most notably, the Canes' home games were played at the Greensboro Coliseum, with Game 5 of that series being the last NHL game ever played there.

The RBC Center would open that fall, but that spring, the Canes were still mired in their Greensboro exile, black curtain and all. The good times were still so far away, and never seemed farther.

"We came out very, very physical early in that series," Maurice said. "We had Gary Roberts and some pretty good bangers. I thought we played pretty well and controlled that series. The key to it was Ronnie rolling his ankle behind the net. And then the obvious -- Anson Carter's overtime goal, Martin Gelinas' double-hit."

In Game 1, Francis went behind the net and collided with Steve Heinze, spraining his left ankle. He was hobbled for the rest of the series. But the Canes hung tough, and the series was 2-2 going into a monumental Game 5 in Greensboro.

Wesley hit the crossbar in the first overtime that night. In the second overtime, Gelinas had a wide-open look at an open net, but double-hit the puck. A few minutes later, Carter scored for the Bruins and the series, in effect, ended there.

"It was a great series," Wesley said. "You take that overtime goal, it goes the other way, you're coming back for a Game 7. But that's hockey. Sometimes you get bounces. Sometimes you don't. That's the way it goes."

Chiasson's death overshadows everything else that happened in that series, but on the ice, the exchange of chances in overtime of Game 5 stands out as the pivotal moment.

Over the course of his career, Gelinas wouldn't miss many more playoff goals. He became known as "The Eliminator" for his uncanny knack for scoring goals that closed out playoff series.

He did it with the Hurricanes against the Toronto Maple Leafs to send the Hurricanes into the Stanley Cup finals in 2002, then scored the series-clinching goals for the Calgary Flames in the first three rounds as they advanced to the finals as well.

(Had his apparent goal in Game 6 of the finals been reviewed by the league, he might have done the deed in all four rounds, but the Tampa Bay Lightning won that game and Game 7 to deny Gelinas and the Flames the Cup.)

But Gelinas wasn't The Eliminator then. And the Hurricanes weren't the Hurricanes they are now. They were just a group of players in the playoffs for the first time in six years, looking to find their way. Three years later, they would find it.

"That was almost a necessary first step," Maurice said. "We made the playoffs, and maybe that was part of it, making the playoffs was good enough because it had been such a long time."

And now the Hurricanes are making another run in the playoffs again, and like in 2006, led once again by Rod Brind'Amour -- a four-time winner of the team's Steve Chiasson Award. An award that honors the defenseman who helped start it all but never saw how it ended.

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