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Hurricanes on verge of winning first title

RALEIGH, N.C. - The Carolina Hurricanes returned home all fresh and ready to go, clearly intent on bringing the Stanley Cup final to a speedy conclusion.

About three hours later, the Edmonton Oilers finally arrived at their hotel, straggling off the bus in flip-flops and blue jeans with a tired, glassy look in their eyes.

A contrast in appearances that summed up the state of this series.

Carolina seems to have everything going its way. A hot goaltender. A commanding lead. A chance to hoist the cup at home if it can win Game 5 tonight in front of its rabid 'Caniac fans.

The 41⁄2-hour flight from Alberta to North Carolina? Right on time, of course.

''It was kind of a long day,'' said Mark Recchi, who scored the winning goal in the Hurricanes' 2-1 victory in Game 4. ''But it wasn't too bad.''

Then there's the Oilers.

They're facing a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series. They're running out of time to fix a power play that can't seem to do anything right. Even their charter flight was a bit of a struggle.

The aircraft had mechanical problems before taking off, which forced the Oilers to wait around another 21⁄2 hours and pushed back their arrival on Tobacco Road to early evening.

''It's a long trip anyway, and that's just something else to deal with,'' said captain Jason Smith. ''But we're not going to let it affect the way we prepare.''

While the eighth-seeded Oilers managed three straight upsets against higher-ranked teams to reach the finals, they now face the potential of a season-ending game for the first time all season.

History is firmly against them. Only one team in NHL history has come back to win the Stanley Cup after trailing 3-1 in the finals - the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who actually overcame a 3-0 deficit with four straight wins against Detroit.

Then again, coach Craig MacTavish feels the Hurricanes might be feeling a few jitters now that they're at the cusp of the cup. Only a handful of Carolina players - Recchi, Aaron Ward, Cory Stillman - have hoisted hockey's greatest prize.

''That's a tough game to win when you're trying to win the Stanley Cup for the first time,'' MacTavish said. ''There's a lot of things going on in your head. We want to prey on that as much as we can.''

Carolina wants to snuff out the Oilers' hopes of extending the series - right here, right now. If Edmonton manages to win Game 5, then it's back to Alberta for the next one. And the Hurricanes don't want any part of a seventh game - even on their home ice.

Every goal matters at this point.

While scoring increased dramatically in the post-lockout NHL, the last two games were more in line with the clutch-and-grab days. Edmonton squeaked out a 2-1 victory in Game 3, the Hurricanes won the next one by the same soccer-like score. The Oilers, in fact, have scored only three goals in the last three games.

The goalies have a lot to do with that.

Carolina's Cam Ward is one of the leading contenders for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, a 22-year-old rookie who is playing with poise and confidence. His positioning is superb, he rarely gives up a bad rebound and even the toughest saves look rather routine.

Edmonton has gotten surprisingly strong play in the last two games from its replacement goalie. Jussi Markkanen, who took over after Dwayne Roloson sustained a series-ending knee injury, certainly played well enough for the Oilers to win both games in Edmonton.

Carolina's Doug Weight said he's not surprised that the scoring tailed off after the Hurricanes pumped in five goals in each of the first two games.

''Traditionally, the farther along you get in a series, that's the way it is,'' Weight said. ''The defense toughens up. The goalies step up. There's a lot of blocked shots. Teams are taking less penalties because they know they can't afford to be in the box.''

Actually, it doesn't really matter if the Hurricanes are a man down - even two. Edmonton's power play has converted only 1-of-25 chances in the finals, an abysmal 4 percent success rate. During the regular season, the Oilers tied for 14th in the league by scoring on 18.1 percent of their opportunities.

In Game 4, Edmonton actually had a better scoring chance while shorthanded late in the game than it did on any of its five power plays. For the second straight game, the Oilers squandered a lengthy two-man advantage.

Look for them to set up more plays from the blue line instead of trying to pound it inside, where the Hurricanes have managed to cut off the shooting lanes and sweep away most of the dangerous rebounds. Also, MacTavish plans to go back to his regular power-play lineup, players such as Ales Hemsky, Sergei Samsonov and Ryan Smyth.

''We've got to find a way to score on the power play,'' said Samsonov, who had the lone Edmonton goal on Monday. ''That's a pretty important part of the game, especially in the playoffs.''