Them's the breaks

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

RALEIGH -- You know things are going your way when one of your guys breaks his stick on a power play and it leads to an overtime game-winning goal.

Cory Stillman was the officially anointed hero last night. He was the one who scored the winner at 8:46 of overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 4-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, and as a result, a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference final.

But before that stage was set, there had to be some shuffling of the scenery.

Here's the situation: It's overtime in a pivotal game. Both teams have had their chances. The Sabres went up 3-1 on goals by Chris Drury, Derek Roy and Toni Lydman, with only Justin Williams responding for Carolina.

But at that point, Carolina coach Peter Laviolette yanked starting goaltender Martin Gerber and replaced him with rookie Cam Ward, who has been the winner in 10 of the 11 Carolina playoff victories.

The move gave the Hurricanes a lift -- but not as much as the two goals they scored within the next eight minutes, thanks to Mark Recchi and Rod Brind'Amour.

Now the battle was joined. The longer the game went, the more important the next goal became. And eventually, the game went into overtime.

The Sabres carried a power play out of regulation time, but Ward, who four minutes earlier had stopped a breakaway from Maxim Afinogenov, one of the shiftiest players in the league, kept the Sabres at bay.

Then came the Hurricanes' chance -- their own man advantage when J.P. Dumont got tagged for hooking.

The Carolina power play was moving the puck around to little effect when Eric Staal broke his stick. As he rushed to the bench, trainer Bob Gorman frantically tried to find a replacement, but couldn't.

So rather than waste time, Matt Cullen came over the boards.

Still at the left point near the bench, he fired a shot that missed the net and ricocheted out front to Ray Whitney.

Stillman can take over the narrative at this point: "I thought Ray was actually going to put it in," he said. "I think the goalie (Ryan Miller) thought so too. It jumped over his stick. I got a whack at it and put it through his five hole."

But it was Cullen's shot that made the play and it worked so well it almost seemed as if he had planned it.

"No, I just tried to miss the first guy coming out," he said. "I tried to hit the net on the short side.

"But if you want to put it in there, I'll take it," said Cullen, clearly enjoying himself. "I'm not going to argue with you. Go ahead."

The fact remains, though, that if Staal hadn't broken his stick, the play would have unfolded differently. In fact, Cullen probabIy would not have been on the ice.

"Probably not," Cullen said, laughing. "Not with Old Iron Lungs over there."

For that matter, Staal would have stayed on if a replacement stick had been found.

"No." Cullen said, still chuckling. "I saw him coming so I jumped on. I was going whether they had a stick or not."

It was no laughing matter to Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff.

"When you take a point shot and it ricochets ... off the end wall, and your goaltender's stick gets stuck on Whitney's skate, you don't draw those plays up," he said.

And he wasn't too happy with some of the penalty calls either, saying, "They got a couple of breaks sitting around embellishing calls, waiting for power plays. That's what they are doing.

"Every time you hit them, they look over their shoulder and look at the referee."

Or maybe they are just looking to make sure everyone has a stick.


Videos

Photos