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Stanley Cup finals breakdown: Oilers vs. Hurricanes

Let's start by saying that we picked the Carolina Hurricanes to win the Stanley Cup way back in mid-April. Seriously.

And we picked the Edmonton Oilers to, well, lose to Detroit and Anaheim. But we did pick them to beat San Jose, which suggests we got lucky once.

Regardless, now there are two. And what a terrific tale both teams have etched in Stanley Cup lore just by getting here.

The Oilers, of course, are Canada's team, a team of destiny, a team of Yahtzee. You name it and the Oilers have got all the mojo in the world going for them. And let's be honest, that's going to be tough for the Hurricanes to put away.

The Oilers have gone from a wobbly eighth seed that stumbled into the postseason to a poised, confident group that is utterly and completely unflappable. They've got a superstar defenseman in Chris Pronger, playing his best hockey ever, a Cinderella netminder in Dwayne Roloson, playing for a whopper contract, and superior penalty killing. All of that will be hard to match.

But the Hurricanes are a team chock-full of veteran confidence and a wild and wacky goaltending tandem. They are also a team that, likewise, never gets rattled and has a knack for coming from behind with a relentless puck-pursuit game plan. They also have the NHL's most potent playoff power play.

Hmmm. Something's got to give.

Both teams have excelled in one-goal games and have speed to burn. So hang on, the final showdown that no one in the world predicted should be a dandy.

Why Carolina will win: Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish has said his goal in each series is to see both of the opponent's goalies. Chances are he'll get his wish against Carolina, although it's not likely to do him much good.

Carolina coach Peter Laviolette has walked the tightrope between method and madness in swapping regular-season starter Martin Gerber with rookie playoff hero Cam Ward, who came on in relief several times. The rookie will be the starter after helping the Canes rebound from a 2-0 deficit in the first round against Montreal and returned to lead them to an overtime victory in Game 5 and then in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Buffalo.

For the most part, Ward has been sensational as he was in Game 7, when he turned in a handful of crucial saves to help Carolina move on after giving up a weak second-period goal late that gave Buffalo a 2-1 lead. But the Hurricanes will play no differently if Gerber comes back into the picture, which speaks to the maturity and balance of this Carolina team.

Up front, the Canes are led emotionally by captain Rod Brind'Amour, who is on the ice for every crucial moment of every game. In spite of playing what he described as a lousy game, he scored the series clincher against Buffalo on Thursday. He is tireless and dangerous and leads the NHL in face-off proficiency.

Statistically, the Canes are led by emerging superstar Eric Staal, whose 20 points lead all postseason scorers. Staal, 21, also had a franchise-record 15-game point streak. And while it's hard to find fault with the kid's game, he was not much of a factor in Games 6 and 7. It begs the question: Has he hit the wall? He will get a face-full of Pronger in the Cup finals, which means things are going to get a whole lot tougher for the pride of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Luckily for Staal and the rest of the Canes, he does not shoulder the offensive burden alone. In fact, no team in the playoffs possesses Carolina's offensive depth. Eight Carolina forwards have 10 points or more. The Oilers have five forwards who have reached that level.

More significantly, look at the pedigree of those forwards: Brind'Amour; Doug Weight; Cory Stillman, who won a Cup two years ago in Tampa; Justin Williams, who's been one of the best two-way players in the playoffs; and multi-Cup winner Mark Recchi.

Almost every way you break down the stats, the Canes look just a half-step ahead of the Oilers. The Hurricanes are 8-4 in one-goal games, the Oilers 6-3. Carolina's power play is about six percentage points better than Edmonton's. Perhaps the most impressive stat, the Hurricanes are 6-4 when their opponent scores first. They also erased a third-period deficit in Game 7 against Buffalo, a clear indication this team never pushes the panic button. Although the Oilers boast the best penalty-killing unit in the playoffs, the Canes' penalty killing in the last four games of the conference finals was stellar.

While both teams are here because they never say "uncle," the Hurricanes have just a little more oomph. And at this stage of the game, a little more is enough.

Why Edmonton will lose: We know we're tempting the fates here. The ghosts of Messier, Gretzky, Coffey, et al, seem to be carrying this team to glory. We've already explored the deep similarities between this team and the last Oilers Cup team in 1990. But as shocking as it might be to the boys and girls on Whyte Avenue and the multi-headed ownership group and the 30 million Canadians who have adopted the Oilers as their own, the glory train is about to stop just short.

Although the Oilers have received clutch scoring from an unheralded cast that includes Shawn Horcoff, who has evolved into a fine No. 1 center, and Fernando Pisani, whose nine goals are tied for the playoff lead, Edmonton simply can't match Carolina's firepower up and down the lineup.

That means the challenge for MacTavish and his troops is in playing a physical, shut-down style. It worked to a "T" against an Anaheim team that looked like it would out-skill the Oilers. But the Ducks are like seltzer to the Hurricanes' Dom Perignon, which is going to leave the Oilers stretched a little too thin, especially on the back end.

Pronger was dominant in defusing Teemu Selanne in the Western Conference finals and Joe Thornton in the series before, and he leads the NHL in ice time, averaging 31:54 a night. But if Pronger spends quality board time with Staal, and he will, who will look after Brind'Amour, Williams and Stillman, Carolina's so-called second line? And Weight and Ray Whitney, who play on the "third" unit? That's a problem for the Oilers, who rely so heavily on their top four defensemen: Pronger, Jason Smith, Jaroslav Spacek and Steve Staios.

Spacek has provided some welcome offensive jump from the back end (he and Pronger have combined for 26 points). But Spacek is minus-5 and has shown a propensity to cough up the puck under pressure. And pressure is what they'll see in spades from the Canes, who play hair-on-fire hockey every night.

Although the Oilers lead the NHL in postseason penalty killing and have in fact used that to their advantage to engage in a physical style that sometimes strays over the edge, they will do so at their peril against Carolina. The Sabres learned that the hard way, giving up a power-play goal in the third that turned out to be the winner Thursday night.

Raffi Torres, Michael Peca and Ryan Smyth play a smash-mouth style that put them in good stead against physical opponents such as Anaheim and San Jose, but the Hurricanes, while no shrinking violets, are a much more dangerous opponent.

So it's a double-edged sword: Pressure the Hurricanes physically and hope to keep them from turning this into a sprint series, but run the risk of taking costly penalties to do it, or step back from the physicality for fear of taking penalties and allow the Canes to dictate the flow.

One of the keys for the Oilers will be in pressuring a Carolina defense that is underrated but lacks a true stud in the mold of a Pronger, Scott Niedermayer or Nicklas Lidstrom. It is this element of the game plan that may mean the difference in the series.

People have been waiting since mid-April for Roloson's bubble to burst. We're beyond that. Roloson has played more minutes than any netminder this spring and his .931 save percentage means he's the real deal. His refusal to give up the bad goal will ensure this series is tight. But at best, Roloson and Ward are a saw-off. That won't be quite good enough.

Prediction: Carolina in six.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.