What about Mike?

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:49 AM ET

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Will he stay or will he go?

The Oilers' Michael Peca wasn't of the mind to talk about what he'll do when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1 last night. Not with the disappointment of a 3-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final still stinging.

But, while Peca will leave his status up in the air until it's time to talk contracts later this summer, he was money in the bank in an unforgettable ride that saw the Oilers come within one win of a date with the engraver.

That was cold consolation last night.

"These last two months, they've been the best time of my hockey life," Peca said, looking for a silver lining.

MUCH TO BE PROUD OF

"We've got a lot to be proud of. To have team success is one thing, but to do it with the kind of guys we have on our team, guys who care about each other, and to do it with a coaching staff that really embraced the players, is really something.

"It's the community we play in. It's the fans we get to play in front of. With all that, it adds up to the greatest time in our lives."

Peca, 32, obtained from the New York Islanders for Mike York and a conditional draft pick a day after GM Kevin Lowe swiped Chris Pronger from the St. Louis Blues, came under criticism early and often during the regular season as he tried to fill the spot as the team's No. 1 center.

That wasn't the forte of the two-time Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's top defensive forward, and his inconsistency and lack of offensive production in concert with a $3.99 million contract drew the ire of critics.

After managing just 9-14-23 in 71 regular season games, Peca began to hit his stride in the stretch drive. When the final buzzer sounded last night, he'd tallied 6-5-11 with one game-winning goal in 24 playoff games on the way to coming up a win short in his second Cup final.

"If we didn't make the playoffs, there would have been a lot of regret and disappointment," Peca said. "I felt I played some good games during the regular season, but the whole goal was to get into the playoffs. My motivation all year long was to help put ourselves in a position to win a championship."

For Peca, who lost in the Cup final with the Buffalo Sabres in 1999, the ring's the thing. Nothing else matters. Watching the Hurricanes parade with the Cup last night is his only regret.

"There's a time when you sit and reflect. At least I do," Peca said. "You think about playing as a nine- or 10-year-old.

"You think about the time your parents put in. The hours of training. The times you vomited because you got bag-skated for an hour-and-a-half.

"All that stuff has a meaning at the time you're doing it. At the end of the journey, it's all supposed to lead to this day and to your finding a way to succeed on this day.

ALL THAT WORK

"Our guys have been able to recognize that. To understand what all the work has been for. It's the whole organization, the coaches and the front office people and all the staff, but, ultimately, it comes down to the 20 guys on the ice to fulfill that dream for everybody."

As for what'll happen after July 1 - speculation has been Peca wants to return to the Eastern Conference - that wasn't up for discussion.

"I'm not thinking about that right now," he said.

"It's a short off-season, but it's going to seem like an eternity when you've got to think about this. We're going to try not to carry the baggage with us. Next time we get there, hopefully we get one more win."


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