RALEIGH -- Even on what the Carolina Hurricanes called their worst night of the playoffs, no lead was safe.
Even in the biggest game of the year, the Hurricanes saved their best for last.
And that doesn't even include the final 32 seconds, which won them the first game of the Stanley Cup finals.
Down three goals to the Edmonton Oilers late in the second period, the Hurricanes managed to do Monday on the NHL's biggest stage what they did all year long.
A four-goal spurt got the Canes back into the game; the easiest goal of Rod Brind'Amour's 11 this postseason and the best save of Cam Ward's 34 on the night won it for them in the final minute, giving the Canes a 5-4 victory over the Oilers and the early lead in the best-of-seven series.
"All year our team has been exciting because we seem to, for whatever reason, get behind and find ways to scratch and claw and make huge saves," Brind'Amour said. "I mean, I'd say my dad, he's having a heart attack. We're fun to watch, but that's not the way you want to do it."
With Oilers goalie Dwayne Roloson injured after a third-period goalmouth collision with Carolina forward Andrew Ladd, backup Ty Conklin misplayed the puck behind the Edmonton net, sending it into Edmonton defenseman Jason Smith. It bounced straight to Brind'Amour, who tucked it into the unoccupied net with 31.1 seconds to play.
But the Oilers weren't done yet. Shawn Horcoff gathered up a rebound in front of the Carolina net with 3.8 seconds to play, only to be denied by Ward's glove as the rookie dove across the crease.
"Just out of pure desperation, I put my glove out there," Ward said. "I was very fortunate to make the save."
That wrapped up a wild, frenzied game that saw the Oilers dominate the sloppy Hurricanes for two periods, convert the first successful penalty shot in finals history and take a 3-0 lead. End Act I. The Hurricanes then scored four goals in less than 14 minutes, only to give up a tying goal to Ales Hemsky with 6:29 to play. Less than a minute later, Edmonton defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron checked Ladd into Roloson, trapping the goalie's right leg against the post and under Ladd.
Roloson is done, Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish said, and it was his arrival at the trade deadline that turned the Oilers into a playoff team. Now he has the choice of a potentially shell-shocked Conklin or third-string Jussi Markkanen, neither particularly appetizing.
"I think it's a valid question, a valid concern," MacTavish said. "But I know Ty is a tough, tough guy mentally, as most people that know him and have seen him all year long do, and he's never once wavered in his confidence."
The Oilers had been off for more than a week but had the edge early, showing little rust, while the Canes had trouble replicating their intensity and their fans the atmosphere of Thursday's Game 7 win over the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference finals.
Careless with the puck and on their heels, the Canes ceded both possession and territory to the Oilers for much of the first two periods -- falling behind 2-0 when Chris Pronger converted the first successful penalty shot in finals history -- and sending them to the locker room for the second intermission down 3-1 and irate with their failure to take any initiative.
"Every series has to take on a face," Carolina center Doug Weight said. "This is not the face we want. This was our worst game of the playoffs."
But in what has become a Carolina cliche, the third period has been the Hurricanes' best both in the regular season and playoffs, and Monday was no different.
After Brind'Amour tapped in a Justin Williams rebound late in the second period to ignite Carolina's comeback, it was the three Carolina players most closely connected with the Oilers who finished it off -- Ray Whitney, Weight and Ward.
Whitney, who grew up around the Oilers as their stick boy and son of their practice goalie, and Weight, who spent almost a decade in Edmonton, including a stint as the Oilers' captain, led an early third-period charge that erased not only a two-goal deficit but also the two miserable periods the Canes would just as soon forget.
Weight set up Whitney's first goal and Whitney picked up a second on a power play less than four minutes later to tie the score, while Ward, a native of Edmonton suburb Sherwood Park, picked up the win as the youngest goalie to start a finals game in 20 years -- in what may have been his best game of the playoffs.
"He played great," Carolina forward Kevyn Adams said. "How can you compare them? But he made some saves, especially in the third period, where we're on the bench looking at each other wondering how he did it."
The Hurricanes felt the same way about the win, unsure how a performance so poor for the majority of the game could bring them within three wins of the Stanley Cup.
"I'm almost confused how to feel, honestly," coach Peter Laviolette said.
After rumbling restlessly for two periods, the fans at the RBC Center left little doubt how they felt about the third.
They saw losses in both the previous finals games played at the arena, in 2002, but had plenty to cheer about Monday -- perhaps not at the start, but certainly at the end.
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