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Friday, May 15, 2009

Walker scores in OT, Carolina is going to the Eastern Conference Finals

Posted by on Fri, May 15, 2009 at 2:54 PM

click to enlarge Scott Walker and Matt Cullen scrum for the puck in Game 6. Photo by Peggy Boone, IndyWeekBlogs
  • Scott Walker and Matt Cullen scrum for the puck in Game 6. Photo by Peggy Boone, IndyWeekBlogs

FS-CR/TV—David ultimately trumped Goliath, yet again, except this time the story took an unexpected turn. Goliath woke up, saw the rock embedded in his forehead, realized what was happening and pounded David into dust before David could finish him off. Dazed and discouraged, David turned to his friend, Scotty Walker, who was hated by the village people (not those Village People…) Walker took his stone and sling and flung it into the net in the eleventh hour, and the spectators at the arena slunk out in horror while Walker, David and crew celebrated. "Tea parties? How about tee times?!" David taunted over Goliath's prone form.

Was that weird? Apologies. Rod Brind’Amour, Sergei Samsonov and Scott Walker scored and the ‘Canes tightened up their defensive game in Game 7, ensuring an Eastern Conference Finals berth for Carolina for the third time in seven years.

For the first time in the 2009 playoffs, the Hurricanes won when Eric Staal didn’t score. Though almost every Game 7 statistic was against Carolina – home ice advantage, first goal scored, ect. – one remained true. Carolina became the seventh consecutive road time to win in Game 7 of overtime. In addition, though it might not be doing much to improve their fans’ blood pressure, the ‘Canes continued to thrive in Game 7’s, winning their fourth in a row.

And who was the quick-handed speed demon that made it happen in extra innings? Er…a grinder. Scott Walker, Boston’s most hated after he non-suckerpunched Aaron Ward in the face during Game 5 and the league opted against handing down a suspension, put it away for the ‘Canes in the textbook definition of a storybook ending.

ESPN’s Bill Simmons claimed, “A game-winner by Scott Walker would have caused the biggest riot [in Boston] since 1776." That sounds about right.

“The rest of the league will look as that event as how Scott Walker is, but there is so much more to him and what he means to our locker room and the adversity he’s faced this year,” Maurice told the media. “There wouldn’t be a guy in that room loved more than Scotty Walker.”

On the road again, the 'Canes tried to avoid becoming the 22nd team in league history to let a 3-1 series lead slip away. The start was a vast improvement over the first five minutes of Game 6, though not allowing two goals in that span shouldn't be considered a moral victory. Byron Bitz (yes, that’s a hockey player. No, I couldn’t believe it either.) put Boston ahead after a questionable call that had Carolina’s bench incensed. Thomas left his net to play an iced puck, a play that the rules state nullifies the icing call. Thomas was out of his crease and around the net when he saw one of his teammates coming to get it and returned to his spot. The referees missed this and called icing, so the puck was brought back into the ‘Canes’ end and they were not allowed to make a line change. Carolina couldn’t put it behind them and Boston scored off the ensuing face-off.

Brind’Amour picked an opportune time to score his first of the postseason when a Dennis Seidenberg shot from the point nicked his shinguard and slid under Thomas five-hole on a power play later in the first period.

Though the team was outmatched physically yet again and was abysmal in the face-off circle, Carolina left the second period up a goal. Sergei Samsonov tipped the puck past Thomas off a beautiful, well-timed pass from Joni Pitkanen, the very same play that bit the Hurricanes twice in Game 6.

But Boston’s Milan Lucic picked up the garbage in front of Ward and scored his third of the series in the third period, ensuring neither team would take the easy way out of this one.

The game slid into overtime. The pace picked up significantly, with the puck spending a majority of the time in the ‘Canes’ end. Players were dumping each other on their heads, but the referees didn’t touch their whistles. Rod Brind’Amour almost got his second of the night when a puck skittered past Thomas and across the goal line, but Aaron Ward pounced on it before Brind’Amour could get there. Later in overtime, a renegade puck hit Brind’Amour while he was seated on the bench on the bench, which you would think would happen more often but it’s the first I’ve heard of it in quite a while. Brind'Amour left the game and didn't return. The laceration required stitches and at game time, Paul Maurice had no update on his condition.

Both teams managed eight shots on goal and Carolina’s eighth, as previously described, was a rebound that popped right to Walker in front of the net with 1:14 remaining in the first overtime. Walker sent it over Thomas with David-esque precision.

“Scotty Walker is not afraid of anyone,” Mo said. “Over the course of the year I’ve had to go to him and say, ‘you’re not allowed to fight that guy.’ If you get in the heat of the battle, he’s going to try.”

Thomas bolted out of the net as though his pads were on fire. I halfway expected to see a video of him trudging down a downtown Boston street, skates and mask still on, at the rate he was going, but he showed up for post-game handshakes.

Walker embarked on an overjoyed – and, to hazard a guess, vindicated – lap around the ice. Ray Whitney wants a victory hug? Nope, Scotty’s got places to be. Staal tries a flying embrace? Pass. It took an entire legion of happy ‘Canes to subdue Walker at center ice for a big group hug. Then both teams lined up for the traditional handshake.

Hundreds showed up to welcome the Hurricanes home at RDU later that night, waiting until 3 a.m. to congratulate the team. There will be pictures of and commentary on this strange Triangle tradition soon on Triangle Offense.

The ending may have been dramatic, but the Boston/Carolina series hardly falls into the “classic” category. There was plenty of drama and momentum shifts, but also some shoddy play from both sides. The upcoming Penguins series in the NHL's final four should prove to be interesting, if nothing else. The Penguins are the NHL’s darling “ideal model” franchise and are always surrounded by a swirl of controversy. Strange calls, missed suspensions, and at the center of it all, Sidney Crosby. As Crosby is now hated by much of the league, the ‘Canes may find themselves in a new position – with fans outside of North Carolina on their side. The Penguins lost in the cup finals last year and have defeated two imposing foes in these playoffs, so the ‘Canes are still decidedly the underdogs. But while the last two teams they faced tried to hit them into submission, the ‘Canes are not your most physical team and will have to outsmart them with smothering defense and offensive finesse. It will be an odd series. Every call will be scrutinized. But the Hurricanes are there, and – to hazard another guess – that’s all that matters to fans.

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