New-look NHL in top form in finals, but few tuned in

RALEIGH, N.C. -- There was more scoring, plenty of intriguing story lines and hardly anyone watching at home in the United States.

The first Stanley Cup finals of the post-lockout era showcased the positive steps taken by the NHL to get over its debilitating labor dispute -- but the series also highlighted the daunting challenge of persuading anyone beyond the hard-core fans to notice.

Two small-market teams, Carolina and Edmonton, were the last ones standing.

The Hurricanes won their first Stanley Cup title in a thrilling seven-game series that featured a penalty shot goal and a short-handed goal in overtime, two firsts for the finals. Score one for the clampdown on hooking, grabbing and all the other thuggish tactics that dumbed the game down.

In a sign of more wide-open play and increased power-play chances, Carolina combined with the Oilers for 35 goals in all, up more than a goal a game over the last championship series in 2004 and tied for the second highest-scoring finals (based on per-game average) in the last decade.

"We really had to earn that one," Carolina's Ray Whitney said after the down-to-the-wire finale, which wasn't decided until Justin Williams' empty-net goal with just over a minute remaining. "It was relentless."

Still, the NHL continued to fight a losing battle in its bid to be viewed as more than a fringe sport based on that most valued of numbers: U.S. TV ratings.

Game 7 on Monday night had a 3.3 rating and 6 share on NBC, down from ABC's 4.2/7 for Game 7 in 2004 -- the last season before the lockout.

"The ratings are in line with our projections," Brian Walker, director of communications for NBC Sports, said Tuesday. "We were thrilled with the product on the ice. The rule changes had a huge impact. The hockey this season was fantastic."

NBC aired the final five games of the finals, averaging a 2.3 rating and 4 share, down from a 2.6/5 on ABC in 2004. NBC averaged 3.6 million viewers, down from ABC's 3.9 million in 2004.

A ratings point represents 1,096,000 households, or 1 percent of the nation's estimated 109.6 million TV homes. The share is the percentage of in-use televisions tuned to a given show.

Several of Univision's telenovelas proved more popular than NBC's telecast of Game 3, which was seen by only 2.5 million people. Game 6 wasn't much better at 2.9 million, compared with 14.3 million watching the Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

In the ultimate slap, the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City didn't even show Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, going with a taped broadcast of a Major League Soccer contest.

Those who did tune in to hockey saw a highly entertaining series. Give credit to the Oilers, the first eighth-seeded team to make the finals under the current format, for fighting back after losing the first two games and three of the first four. They even managed to do it with without starting goalie Dwayne Roloson, who had played every minute of the playoffs for Edmonton until he went down with a knee injury in Game 1.

Jussi Markkanen, a third-stringer who had not played in more than three months, took over in the nets and did a remarkable job after getting blown out 5-0 in Game 2. The gritty Oilers, lacking star power beyond defenseman Chris Pronger, managed to keep up with a Carolina team that had 11 more wins and 17 more points during the regular season.

In the end, the Hurricanes brought the Stanley Cup to Tobacco Road, gaining a foothold in a territory best known for college basketball and NASCAR racing.

It was a stirring triumph for 30-something players such as Whitney, Rod Brind'Amour, Glen Wesley, Doug Weight and Bret Hedican -- all of whom got their name on the hockey's most treasured prize for the first time.

Brind'Amour, the team's captain and rough-and-tumble leader, had tears streaming down his face after he hoisted the cup.

"I just kept thinking there is no way we can let this go," the 35-year-old center said. "There's too many guys that deserve this."

The Hurricanes overcame a loss of their own. Weight went down in Game 5 with an injured right shoulder and didn't play again, but he put on his uniform and returned to the ice for the celebration Monday night.

No way he was missing a chance to hold the cup, even though Weight couldn't quite lift it as high with his right hand as he did with his left. Whatever he lacked in style points, he made up for in pure joy.

Wesley finally got his title, too. It took 18 years and 1,311 regular-season games -- the eighth-most in NHL history for a player who had not won the cup. The 37-year-old defenseman was the second player to get it, taking the handoff from Brind'Amour.

"I still can't believe it," Wesley said. "It honestly feels like a dream to me."

While the old guys reveled in their first championship, they all knew it wouldn't have been possible without the kid in the nets.

Twenty-two-year-old rookie Cam Ward took over in Carolina's opening-round series against Montreal when starter Martin Gerber struggled. The youngster wound up winning more games in the postseason (15) than he did during the regular season (14) to claim the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the playoffs.

Ward, a former first-round pick, could quickly develop into one of the league's dominating goalies along the same lines as Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, the last two rookie netminders to lead their teams to the cup.

"I'd like to say I'm a better goaltender now than I was at the beginning of the season," he said.

Edmonton, meanwhile, believes that its first trip to the finals since 1990 won't be followed by a similar drought. Fernando Pisani scored a playoff-leading 14 goals -- only four less than he had during the regular season. Pronger was a dominating force on defense. Markkanen showed that he might just be a No. 1 goalie, capable of taking over for Roloson should the free agent-to-be head elsewhere.

Roloson sounds like he wants to stick around for a while. He pointed out that Edmonton lost its first trip to the finals in 1983 but followed that with five Stanley Cups in seven years, a dominating run led by players such as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr.

"In the history of the Oilers, they had to go to the cup and lose one to learn what it took to win," Roloson said. "We're in the same thing. This is something we can use to get better and hopefully we can make a dynasty."