MONTREAL -- Debris rained down upon him. Water bottles. Cups half-filled with beer. Hot dogs.
The detritus of a disappointed province came crashing down on Ron Francis' head, but he could not be stopped.
He skated into the face of the anger, stooped into the east goal at the Molson Centre and retrieved the puck that won the game for the Carolina Hurricanes from the back of the net.
Niclas Wallin put it there 3:14 into overtime Thursday, bringing the Canes from the brink of elimination to new heights of celebration with a 4-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series -- now tied at two games apiece.
Francis, the Canes' captain, knew Wallin would want the puck. He was willing to risk his personal safety to get it, even as a water bottle crashed down inches away from his feet.
"I figured it might be safer inside the net," Francis said. "It's a huge win for us. You don't want to go down 3-1. To win it is a huge relief, especially to see a guy like Nicky Wallin, who doesn't share in a lot of the glory but has played very well for us, get the goal."
Down by three goals going into the third period, the Canes incurred the wrath of the projectile-happy crowd with a four-goal comeback that was as improbable as it was furious. They scored as many goals in 23:14 as they'd scored in the entire series coming into that period.
It was 2-0 Montreal coming out of the first period, and Carolina coach Paul Maurice made yet another goalie swap after Kevin Weekes gave up two goals on the first six shots he faced, sending Arturs Irbe in for the first time since Game 4 of the first-round series against the New Jersey Devils.
It was a move that smacked of desperation, as did Maurice's decision to bump struggling Jeff O'Neill down to the third line and promote Jaroslav Svoboda in an attempt to generate offense against Montreal goalie Jose Theodore.
"During the second intermission, Ronnie Francis told us we hadn't thrown the kitchen sink at them yet," O'Neill said.
Instead, they had the kitchen sink thrown at them from the stands.
The Canes broke through with a Sean Hill five-on-three goal with 16:03 to play after Stephane Quintal decked Martin Gelinas and Montreal coach Michel Therrien, who had been warned earlier in the game, let loose with a stream of invective that earned him a penalty of his own.
That's when the Canadiens' fans started throwing garbage on the ice -- which might describe Montreal's play in the third period.
To be fair, it wasn't so much the Canadiens collapsing as the Hurricanes erupting. Once they got Hill's goal past Theodore, they got better with every passing minute.
"It turned it around," Canadiens captain Saku Koivu said. "I'm not going to say anything for that call. I guess we all make mistakes. They got the five-on-three, they scored, and they were right back in the game. I think that was the turning point."
A Bates Battaglia slap shot deflected in off Karl Dykhuis' stick with 7:17 to play and with Irbe back on the bench -- for an extra attacker this time -- Erik Cole smacked in a rebound with 40.7 seconds left to force overtime.
"My eyes were as big as toonies," Cole said, the upstate New York native clearly comfortable with Canadian coinage --a toonie being the $2 coin that's about the size of a half-dollar.
Cole went careening off into the end boards, jumping face-first into the glass in a "take that" gesture, but the Carolina celebration was still to come.
Moments after Irbe stopped Oleg Petrov on a great chance in the high slot, Wallin took a pass from Josef Vasicek and hit Theodore squarely in the chest.
O'Neill won the ensuing faceoff against Bill Lindsay back to Wallin at the right point, then went to the net. With O'Neill screening Theodore, Wallin fired a wrister under Theodore's arm.
"I've never scored a goal like that," Wallin said.
The second-year Swedish defenseman, as popular a character as there is in the Carolina locker room, was engulfed by his teammates as debris rained down around them.
"It was just a total reversal of fortune, reversal of energy," said Weekes, who watched the third period by himself from the entrance to the Carolina locker room, across the ice from the bench.
"You had to be there to see it, otherwise you almost wouldn't believe it. It's just one of those things. We overcame ourselves. We overcame their team. We overcame the crowd. We overcame energy we could feel but couldn't see. This was truly special."
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