RALEIGH, N.C. -- Just who are the Carolina Hurricanes and what in the name of Southern fried chicken and collard greens are they doing in the Eastern Conference finals?
This is a team whose coach came within a loss or two of being fired in December, set a dubious NHL record with seven straight regular-season home ties two months later, and hasn't been able to settle on a starting goaltender in the playoffs. It's a franchise that began its stay in North Carolina five seasons ago playing 90 minutes from home in an arena dubbed ''Green Acres'' for all the empty seats. It hasn't been given much respect since its losing days as the Hartford Whalers.
But Paul Maurice is still coaching in mid-May as the Hurricanes are churning out some impressive history.
''You want to be a part of the process that turns things around,'' said captain Ron Francis, a No. 1 draft pick of the Whalers who returned to the franchise in 1998 after winning two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh.
''For years, New Jersey's organization was made fun of,'' Francis said Monday after the Hurricanes advanced. ''You have to start from someplace, but you want to keep making steps in the right direction. This organization has done that since it has been down here.''
Carolina knocked off the two-time defending conference champion Devils and the Montreal Canadiens in the first two rounds to reach the conference finals for the first time in the team's 23-year history.
And the Southeast Division champions are showing no signs of slowing down after winning just 35 games in the regular season -- tied for fifth fewest in the East.
''The biggest key is unity,'' defenseman Aaron Ward said. ''We've got a group of guys in this locker room that don't see limitations, and don't pay attention to what other limitations are placed on them by other people. There is no one individual in this locker room. We realized a long time ago we're not getting far with individuality.''
The key to the sudden rise of the franchise has been the patience of general manager Jim Rutherford with Maurice, who at 35 is still the youngest coach in the league, and with young players such as Bates Battaglia, Josef Vasicek, Jaroslav Svoboda and Erik Cole -- the latter three picked in the 1998 draft.
That's the same year Rutherford signed Francis and goalie Arturs Irbe, and traded for playoff veteran Martin Gelinas.
''It takes time,'' Rutherford said. ''You don't build these teams overnight.''
Then there were the midseason deals this year. Defenseman Sean Hill returned after leaving the franchise for a higher salary in St. Louis, popular winger Shane Willis was dealt for goaltender Kevin Weekes, and All-Star defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh was traded for Bret Hedican and penalty-killer Kevyn Adams. The addition of Ward, acquired from Detroit in the offseason, Hill and Hedican have made Carolina's defense one of the best in the playoffs.
Weekes has teamed with Irbe to win four postseason games each.
''It always doesn't have to be a blockbuster deal that gets a team over the top,'' Ward said. ''Sometimes those players can take away from the focus, some of those players just don't integrate well into a system. They did their homework here and they knew what we needed and they saw it and went and got it.''
Some of the credit has to be shared by owner Pete Karmanos, who hasn't exactly been the most popular boss in hockey.
Fans in Connecticut vilified Karmanos when he moved the team. He upset many front-office executives when he tried to lure restricted free agent Sergei Fedorov from Detroit with a huge salary. And he had a running feud with former captain and holdout Keith Primeau before dealing him to Philadelphia for center Rod Brind'Amour.
''His passion for hockey and this organization run extremely deep,'' Francis said of Karmanos. ''What you look for in an owner is someone who comes around and shakes your hand, not only when you're having success, but also when you have disappointments.
''When we lost in the playoffs last year he was the first guy down in the locker room shaking everybody's hands. We've had success this year, and he's been around, but he's kind of let the guys enjoy it.''
There's no telling how far the Hurricanes can go after outscoring the Canadiens 17-3 over the final 140 minutes of the six-game series.
''We're still Carolina and we still have enough people who aren't paying attention to us,'' Ward said. ''If you arrive at your destination it doesn't matter if you show up on the radar.''
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