Tough call, but go with Edmonton

AL STRACHAN

, Last Updated: 8:19 AM ET

RALEIGH -- "I doubt you're going to see anything new," Carolina Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said yesterday.

He was talking about both his own team and the Edmonton Oilers. At this stage of the season, you usually don't start incorporating tricks that haven't been part of your trade until now.

The Oilers did it about 20 years ago when they suddenly introduced a break-out system that had them fire out a guy who had to be covered, then pass to a trailer lagging a few feet behind.

But the league was different then. And furthermore, the system didn't last long for the same reason that any innovation of that nature wouldn't last long today.

The coaches are so smart and the analysis is so detailed that the opposition would solve it and counter it in less time than it took to teach it.

So if you're part of the audience that watched telecasts of the Oilers and Hurricanes in previous rounds -- which would be most of Canada and 27 Americans -- you know these two teams are very similar and very evenly matched.

The big difference, in either sense of the word, is Chris Pronger. The Hurricanes have nobody who can match him. Neither does any other team in the league, but that's not really relevant here.

The point is that on the goaltending front, it would appear the Hurricanes can match Dwayne Roloson with Cam Ward.

Both have been superb throughout the playoffs, but that's pretty much a given. If they hadn't been, they wouldn't be where they are today.

And up front, the two teams are well stocked.

Each has a high-ice-time, two-way veteran in Mike Peca and Rod Brind'Amour, and each has a few nifty forwards who can dart around and contribute.

A case could be made that the Oilers don't have an Eric Staal, and that's true. Staal is the leading scorer in the playoffs. But even though he's the best offensive forward on either team, he's not so dominant that he's head and shoulders above anyone else at his position.

But Pronger is.

Throughout the playoffs, the Hurricanes have had to wear down fine goalies.

First it was the phenomenal Cristobal Huet of the Montreal Canadiens. Then it was perennial all-star Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils. Then it was sensational rookie Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres.

To their credit, the Hurricanes came out on top in every instance.

But on none of those three teams did they have to face a defenceman like Pronger.

When the new officiating philosophy came onto the scene, there was much speculation that Pronger would be among the players most affected. In his previous incarnation, he was a slashing penalty waiting to happen --but he usually got 10 free cracks before anybody bothered to call one.

However, Pronger adjusted well. He uses his big body and his long strides to get position, and for the most part, he keeps his stick where it's supposed to be.

On the offensive side of the ledger, he's probably the best long passer in the world and he has a hard accurate shot that he quickly unloads.

Anything else? Oh yes. He's got the physique of a racehorse and can play half the game without working up a sweat.

In a playoff series, any sort of aberration can creep in. One team can get all the bounces, for instance. One goalie suddenly can go flat. One forward suddenly can get red-hot.

If that happens, who knows who will be hoisting the Stanley Cup? But if the two teams follow their form, then they're almost dead even except for the presence of Pronger.

As a result, give the edge to the Oilers:

Edmonton in five.

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THE DEAL WITH ... CHRIS PRONGER

A look at what Pronger has done in the playoffs and why he could be the difference in the final:

- Ice time: 32 minutes.

- Offence: Team-high 13 assists, 17 points ... Great passer ... Hard, quick shot.

- Defence: Held opponents' stars in check with his positioning and size ... Plus-9 rating.

- Quotable: "I've played well, but I want to play better." -- Pronger


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