RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Carolina Hurricanes staggered home Sunday, trying to figure out how it has gone so wrong, so quickly.
A few of them stopped by the locker room, where they could have been sipping champagne from the Stanley Cup a few days ago. Now, their equipment was being sorted out for one more game, one more chance to avoid a mammoth collapse.
"I think we're all embarrassed by the way we played," defenseman Glen Wesley said.
One timely goal away from capturing the cup in Game 5, the Hurricanes find themselves very much on the defensive heading to Game 7 against the resurgent Edmonton Oilers, who suddenly seem much fresher, a step or two quicker and a lot more determined.
"I know we've been the underdog in most people's minds," Oilers center Shawn Horcoff said. "But we really believe we can get this thing done."
Only one team has squandered a 3-1 lead in the finals. Sixty-four years ago, Detroit actually won the first three games against Toronto, only to lose the next four.
The 1942 Red Wings also are one of three teams that jumped out to a 2-0 lead and didn't win the cup.
The Hurricanes put themselves in position to join those infamous teams with a 4-3 overtime loss at home -- on a short-handed goal, no less -- and a dismal 4-0 defeat at Edmonton in Game 6 on Saturday night.
Now, it's on to the winner-take-all finale. Game 7 is Monday night in Raleigh.
The Hurricanes have history on their side, if not as much bounce in their skates. When the finals go to Game 7, the home team is 11-2. The 1971 Montreal Canadiens were the last road team to capture the cup in a decisive game.
Just as the Oilers fed off the enthusiasm of their fans Saturday night in Alberta, Carolina is counting on its crowd to be a major factor on Tobacco Road.
"They've been a huge boost to us all year," said rookie goalie Cam Ward, one of the few Hurricanes who's played well throughout the series. "We've got to use that to our advantage."
Edmonton looked right on the mark when it claimed to be wearing down a Carolina lineup filled with key 30-something players such as Wesley (37), Rod Brind'Amour (35), Bret Hedican (35) and Ray Whitney (34).
Led by feisty, hit-anything-in-red Raffi Torres, the younger Oilers are much like a boxer who just wants to get an aging fighter into the later rounds, then finish him off.
"We feel like we've got them to the point where we can push them over the edge," Edmonton left wing Ethan Moreau said.
Carolina coach Peter Laviolette even seemed to concede as much, at least for one night. He wondered why his team appeared so slow and out of sync in Game 6.
"We were pretty lousy in all aspects," he said. "We didn't have energy in our legs, in our skating, all the things that have been trademark for us all season long."
Maybe they're just saving up for that final game.
"We're not running out of gas. We didn't waste any," Whitney said in a sarcastic dig at his own team's Game 6 effort. "We should have plenty of energy for Monday night."
If not for several big saves by Ward -- including an extraordinary glove stop on Radek Dvorek at the end of a three-on-one -- the Hurricanes would have been beaten much, much worse. In the second period, they didn't force Oilers goalie Jussi Markkanen to block the puck for more than 14 minutes. Edmonton had 21 of the first 24 shots and finished with a commanding 34-16 edge.
Borrowing a page from the Hurricanes' defensive playbook earlier in the series, Markkanen's teammates actually blocked more shots (20) than he did in helping the former third-string goalie to his first playoff shutout.
In fact, this series seems to have flipped around totally. Edmonton, which converted only one of 25 power plays in the first two games, scored three of its four goals Saturday with the man advantage.
Carolina, which had been doing such a good job killing penalties and capitalizing on them, went 0-for-6 on the power play in Game 6.
"We know the power play is going to play a tremendous role in the next game," Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish said. "Whoever wins the special teams is going to have a huge advantage."
The Hurricanes pulled a major surprise in the last game, putting 30-goal scorer Erik Cole back in the lineup when it was thought he was done for the season after breaking a vertebra in his neck in early March.
When center Doug Weight went out with an injured right shoulder in Game 5, Cole asked if he could fill the spot. Carolina hurriedly arranged for him to have a CT scan in Denver on Friday, then flew in the Duke University doctor who was overseeing the player's recovery to discuss the results face-to-face before Saturday's game.
Cole conceded that he's at greater risk for a more serious injury, but he's willing to take that chance -- especially with the Stanley Cup on the line.
"This is my life," he said. "I've always wanted to be a hockey player."
Cole played 18? minutes, took Weight's place on the power play, got a couple of shots on goal, doled out three hits and survived a big blow from Moreau on the very first shift. But it wasn't nearly enough to spark the listless Hurricanes.
"We're a resilient team," Wesley said. "We've been in these situations before. We've had our backs against the wall. I see no reason we won't come up with our best performance."