RALEIGH -- As his teammates danced wildly at the other end of the ice, Rod Brind'Amour skated by himself, head bowed and hands on his knees, overwhelmed with emotion.
After years of struggle for the captain and the Carolina Hurricanes, he was only minutes away from lifting the Stanley Cup above his head.
You could say it took the Hurricanes 10 months and 107 games to win the Stanley Cup, but it really took nine years, countless losses, the trials and tribulations of a slapdash move, two years in Greensboro and a lost season to realize this impossible dream. A franchise once seen as hopeless has now conquered the entire hockey world.
On the brink of tragedy after missing out on two chances to close out the Edmonton Oilers, the Hurricanes claimed ultimate success with a 3-1 win in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals on Monday, securing North Carolina's first major league title and setting off a night of wild celebration across the Triangle, starting with the scene at center ice at the RBC Center where Brind'Amour accepted the Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
"It was just surreal," Brind'Amour said. "It has been a big weight on everybody's shoulders, not just on mine. I guess it just kind of came to a head when I realized we were going to win. It's tough to explain, to be honest with you. We have been through a lot. So many guys on this team -- the years and the ache."
Glen Wesley ended his long quest for the Cup and possibly his career, one of nine holdovers from the team that lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the 2002 finals, the third time Wesley fell short, and then fell all the way to last place the next season. No active player had been in more playoff games without winning than Wesley's 168, who can now be crossed off the list at age 37. He may decide to retire on top after No. 169, although he wasn't saying Monday.
But he wasn't the only one making history. Eric Staal became the youngest player to lead the playoffs in scoring since Gordie Howe in 1949 -- Staal is 21 years old, eight months; Howe was 21 years, 16 days -- and Cam Ward became the fourth rookie and second-youngest player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the first rookie goalie to win the Stanley Cup in 20 years after a 22-save performance.
Cory Stillman became the first player to win consecutive Cups with different teams in a decade, and Peter Laviolette became the second straight American-born coach to win the Cup as the trophy remained with the Southeast Division.
Ray Whitney was one of three Hurricanes to win his first Stanley Cup against the team he hoped to win it with as a kid. The son of the Oilers' practice goalie, Whitney grew up around the Oilers, taping sticks for Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier as a teenager. His victory touched off a night of bittersweet celebration for his friends and relatives in suburban Edmonton, as it did for Ward and Mike Commodore.
"It was never about the veterans, never about the young players, never about one individual," Laviolette said. "It was always about the team."
Monday's game was an appropriate culmination of the most exciting finals in memory, a fast-paced, high-energy battle between two worthy opponents that represented just about everything that's right with the game of hockey.
The Canes may have been the better team, but no team they faced played harder or with more will than the Oilers, whose improbable run from the eighth seed in the Western Conference gave Carolina all it could handle.
On a hazy summer day ideal for tailgating, the atmosphere outside came inside as almost every fan in the building stood for the entire game -- in excitement for two periods, then nervously after the Oilers scored early in the third to pull to a goal down, then with unsupressed joy as the final seconds wound down.
The Hurricanes' defense scored only once in the first six games of the series, but Aaron Ward and Frantisek Kaberle scored early for Carolina. Denied a goal by a referee's call with only a one-goal lead, the Canes killed off a two-man advantage late in the second period to take a two-goal lead into the third period.
Fernando Pisani scored his NHL-leading 14th goal of the playoffs to bring the Oilers within a goal only a minute into the period, but he couldn't get a rebound past a sprawling Cam Ward with 3:40 to play, the save that won the Stanley Cup.
From the opening moments, it was clear the Canes would not allow a repeat of their Game 6 capitulation. Kevyn Adams dove headfirst to stop a Chris Pronger shot during an early power play -- he broke two bones in a wrist but didn't miss a shift -- and Erik Cole leveled Pronger with a big hit along the boards on one of his first shifts.
Their effort paid off quickly when Aaron Ward scored only 86 seconds into the game. After a controversial disallowed goal, Kaberle scored on a power play not six minutes into the second.
Pisani brought the Oilers to a goal down, but Staal set up Justin Williams for an empty-net goal with 1:01 to play, sealing the victory.
They did it with a rookie goalie, a young superstar, a long-suffering veteran, a fiery coach and a captain who at the most difficult of times would not be denied.
Cam Ward. Eric Staal. Glen Wesley. Peter Laviolette. Rod Brind'Amour. They hail from different generations, different backgrounds, yet they all coalesced into a team in a process carefully cultivated from the first day of training camp and designed to deliver this very result.
Who would have thought this possible when the Hurricanes were a team without a home? Now they're a team without peer.
"When we arrived here in Raleigh, I think that the game was really embraced here," Wesley said. "Obviously, we had a lot of work to do, but we have incredible fans. Just to see how far, coming from 2002, beating New Jersey [in the first round] was a big steppingstone for us. This year was just an incredible ride right from the start of the season."
After years as a punchline, the Hurricanes delivered the knockout blow to the rest of the league on Monday. As of now, the Stanley Cup resides in Raleigh.
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