DeCock: With hindsight, Cup really was hanging in the balance

ldecock@newsobserver.comMay 27, 2012 

What no one knew then, as the game played on into the early hours of the morning, what no one would know for years, was that the Stanley Cup really was on the line that night.

Game 3.

Such loaded words for fans of the Carolina Hurricanes, whether they were at the then-Entertainment and Sports Arena that night in 2002, or watching on television, or too young to stay up that late and know it only by the stories they have heard.

Anyone who was in the building that night knew they were in the presence of something momentous, and not just because the wave that had been gathering for two months crested that night. With the series tied 1-1 as the finals arrived in Raleigh for the first time, it felt like anything could happen.

By 1:16 a.m., that feeling was gone. The Red Wings put six future Hall of Famers on the ice with 74 seconds left, won a faceoff and tied the score with a scant deflection off the shaft of Brett Hull’s stick to force overtime. It took almost 55 extra minutes for Igor Larionov to decide the game, and as it turned out, the series, when he flipped a backhand over Arturs Irbe as Erik Cole trailed helplessly from behind and Bates Battaglia went sliding across the ice on his stomach.

It remains the third-longest Stanley Cup finals game in history, and it remains an excruciatingly painful what-might-have-been for the Hurricanes who played in the game.

“I remember talking with Brett Hull a few years later,” said Ron Francis, the Hurricanes’ captain that night. “I didn’t even want to hear about it, but he said. ‘Game 3, if you guys had won ...’ I mean, they felt it too.”

For years, I believed that if the Hurricanes had won Game 3, they wouldn’t necessarily have won the series, but it would have gone seven games, and anything could have happened.

As time has passed, though, and I’ve had the chance to speak with more people on the Detroit side of things, I’ve come to the conclusion that the series was in fact hanging in the balance that night.

Perhaps not at the end of regulation, when the Hurricanes were clinging to that one-goal lead, but more and more as overtime piled on top of overtime. With every minute the clock ticked, with every shift and every shot and every save, the Red Wings got a little older, a little creakier, a little less equipped to recover from that kind of effort if they lost.

“I think it would have turned things around,” Red Wings forward Sergei Fedorov would say, long after. “It would have been tougher on us to play the later matches. Those kind of games, when you lose, it’s a tough blow for any team. It could have been a seven-game series. You never know.”

Larionov’s goal was like the Fountain of Youth for the Red Wings.

Of the 20 players they used in Game 3, eight were 35 or older. A full dozen were in their 30s. Larionov himself, the oldest player in the NHL at 41, went to bed at 5 a.m. and got up at 8:15 to watch Russia play Japan in the World Cup. How heavy would those old legs have been with a loss?

“Age, right now, means nothing,” 37-year-old Detroit captain Steve Yzerman said the day the game ended, a day after it began.

If the Hurricanes had won, it might have meant everything.

DeCock:, (919) 829-8947, Twitter: @LukeDeCock

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