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Yorio picks Carolina

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Kara Yorio picks the Carolina Hurricanes to win the Stanley Cu

As these words hit the page, there still are regular-season games to be played, playoff spots and seeds to be decided and home-ice advantage to be won. But that won't stop us from picking a Stanley Cup champion here and now.

Possible tough first-round matchups aside, injury status uncertain, we're going to go boldly into the unknown: It will be the Hurricanes.

Most hockey fans outside of Raleigh, which is to say most hockey fans, spent the season waiting for the standings to sort themselves out and the Canes to head south. That didn't happen, and we can doubt no more. This team is pushing through late-season injuries and fatigue like everyone else, and it will be ready come playoff time.

Coach Peter Laviolette has his team playing hard and with an aggressive style suited to the new NHL. When the playoffs start, injured winger Erik Cole might not be back, and that's a big hit. But center Eric Staal has become one of the best young players in the league, center Rod Brind'Amour is having a great year, wingers Justin Williams, Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney are contributing, newly acquired Doug Weight and Mark Recchi add experience, and goalie Martin Gerber is living up to general manager Jim Rutherford's expectations.

It won't be shocking if the Stanley Cup doesn't tour Raleigh come June — there is parity in the NHL, luck is required, and one hot stretch can turn a mediocre team into a champion — but the doubting stops there. Carolina has the pieces to win it all. And if there's fairness in the new NHL, the team that has best taken advantage of the rules changes should be the first champion.

"I love Carolina," says Bill Clement, who played on two Stanley Cup winners and now is a TV studio host. "They are the masters of the stretch pass. They've embraced the new NHL and exploited the new rules better than anybody."

The Hurricanes finished the 2003-04 season 11th in the Eastern Conference. Looking back, Rutherford listed his team's needs coming out of that nonplayoff season — and goaltending wasn't one of them. Rutherford had acquired Gerber in a June 2004 trade with the Mighty Ducks, and though Gerber brought with him from Anaheim the question mark of never having been a No. 1, Rutherford had no doubts about his ability.

"Gerber was a guy we had liked for years," says Rutherford, a former goalie. "Fundamentally, he is a very solid goalie."

When training camp began for the 2005-06 season, Laviolette had a team of new faces in an unknown world of the post-lockout NHL. He helped create a family environment, the type of feeling he remembers from his days in the minor leagues as a player and coach.

Besides promoting bonding among his players, Laviolette extended the idea to the coaching staff and players' families — fathers came one weekend, children skated with their dads after practice, and the staff, the players and their spouses got together for games on Monday Night Football.

"I just believe the more you care about somebody, the better and harder you play for them," Rutherford says.

And Laviolette put a system in place that would work for his roster and take advantage of the new rules. His philosophy focuses on puck possession. But the Canes don't play keep-away — they also push.

"He's got some speed — a lot of speed — and some small, quick forwards," says former Carolina forward Jesse Boulerice, who was traded to St. Louis in the deal for Weight on January 30.

"Also, his defensive zone system works from the inside out, pushing everything to the outside; it works really well. It allowed the defense and the low forwards to block a lot of shots and keep them away."

That defense includes Bret Hedican, Frantisek Kaberle, Oleg Tverdovsky and Aaron Ward — with Gerber behind them.

On offense, Carolina is one of the league's most prolific clubs — it entered the week third in the NHL in scoring, behind the Senators and Red Wings. Don't expect the Hurricanes to suddenly install a trap and try to win playoff games 1-0 or 2-1.

"All year long we have played a certain style, played our game with a certain identity," Laviolette says. "It's a pretty aggressive skating style."

The style had been working for the first few months of the season when Rutherford met in January with team owner Peter Karmanos Jr., who asked for an assessment of his team. Rutherford told him it had an even chance of being a Cup contender. Karmanos said he would support whatever moves needed to be made. Rutherford acquired Weight and Recchi without giving up any key players and kept the team's camaraderie intact.

A lack of playoff experience usually works against a goalie; at the least, it makes him a question mark until he proves otherwise. But Gerber went to the Olympics in February and played well for Switzerland under intense pressure.

"That's big," says Clement, who was in Torino for the Games. "Olympic play may be even bigger to Gerber and (Rangers goalie Henrik) Lundqvist than the Stanley Cup. That stage alone is adequate preparation."

So remove the question mark next to Gerber and stop doubting the legitimacy of this team. The Hurricanes have maintained their elite status in the East, and they won't take a tumble now.

© 2006 The Sporting News

© 2006 MSNBC.com

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12285896/page/2/

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