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Hurricanes Hungry, Healthy Heading To Eastern Finals

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Just who are these Carolina Hurricanes andwhat in the name of Southern fried chicken and collard greens arethey doing in the Eastern Conference finals?

This is a team whose coach came within a loss or two of beingfired in December, set a dubious NHL record with seven straightregular-season home ties two months later and hasn't been able tosettle on a starting goaltender in the playoffs.

It's a franchise that began its stay in North Carolina fiveseasons ago playing an hour-and-a-half from home in an arena dubbed"Green Acres" for all the empty seats. It hasn't been given muchrespect since its losing days as the Hartford Whalers.

But Paul Maurice is still coaching in mid-May as the Hurricanesare churning out some impressive history in 2002.

"You want to be a part of the process that turns thingsaround," said Carolina captain Ron Francis, a No. 1 draft pick ofthe Whalers who returned to the franchise in 1998 after winning twoStanley Cups with Pittsburgh.

"For years New Jersey's organization was made fun of," Francissaid Monday. "You have to start from someplace, but you want tokeep making steps in the right direction. This organization hasdone that since it has been down here. When it has made mistakes,it has admitted it and moved forward. The key is we don't takeanything for granted."

Carolina knocked off the two-time defending conference championDevils and the Montreal Canadiens in the first two rounds of theStanley Cup playoffs to advance to the East finals for the firsttime in the 23-year history of the franchise.

And the Southeast Division champions are showing no signs ofslowing down after winning just 35 games in the regular season -tied for fifth fewest in the East.

"The biggest key is unity," defenseman Aaron Ward said."We've got a group of guys in this locker room that don't seelimitations, and don't pay attention to what other limitations areplaced on them by other people. There is no one individual in thislocker room. We realized a long time ago we're not getting far withindividuality."

The key to the sudden rise of the franchise has been thepatience of general manager Jim Rutherford with Maurice, who at 35is still the youngest coach in the league, and with young prospectssuch as Bates Battaglia, Josef Vasicek, Jaroslav Svoboda and ErikCole - the latter three picked in the 1998 draft.

That's the same year Rutherford signed Francis and goaltenderArturs Irbe, and traded for playoff veteran Martin Gelinas.

"It takes time," Rutherford said. "There are 30 teams in thisleague now. You don't build these teams overnight."

Then there were the mid-season deals this year.

Defenseman Sean Hill returned after leaving the franchise for ahigher salary in St. Louis, popular winger Shane Willis was dealtfor goaltender Kevin Weekes, and all-star Sandis Ozolinsh wastraded for Bret Hedican and penalty-killer Kevyn Adams.

The addition of Ward, acquired from Detroit in the offseason fora second-round pick, Hill and Hedican have made Carolina's defenseone of the best in the playoffs.

And Weekes has teamed with Irbe to win four postseason gameseach in net.

"It always doesn't have to be a blockbuster deal that gets ateam over the top," Ward said. "Sometimes those players can takeaway from the focus, some of those players just don't integratewell into a system. They did their homework here and they knew whatwe needed and they saw it and went and got it."

Some of the credit has to be shared by owner Pete Karmanos, whoat times hasn't exactly been the most popular boss in hockey.

Fans in Connecticut vilified Karmanos when he moved the teamsouth. He upset many front office executives in the sport whentried to lure restricted free agent Sergei Fedorov from Detroit toNorth Carolina with a huge salary. And he had a running feud withformer captain and holdout Keith Primeau before he was dealt toPhiladelphia.

"His passion for hockey and this organization run extremelydeep," Francis said of Karmanos. "What you look for in an owneris someone who comes around and shakes your hand, not only whenyou're having success, but also when you have disappointments. Whenwe lost in the playoffs last year he was the first guy down in thelocker room shaking everybody's hands. We've had success this year,and he's been around, but he's kind of let the guys enjoy it."

There's no telling how far the Hurricanes can go afteroutscoring the Canadiens 17-3 over the final 140 minutes of thatsix-game series.

"We're still Carolina and we still have enough people whoaren't paying attention to us," Ward said. "If you arrive at yourdestination it doesn't matter if you show up on the radar."

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