RALEIGH, N.C. - They come out of nowhere, waiting until they're on the biggest stage to introduce themselves to the hockey world.
Remember John Druce? How about Brian Boucher? And whatever happened to Chris Kontos?
The NHL, perhaps more than any other sport, has a knack for producing unlikely stars in the playoffs - grinders, journeymen and backups who suddenly, inexplicably blossom into key players once they get a whiff of the Stanley Cup.
This year is no different.
The Edmonton Oilers were led to Game 7 of the finals Monday night by right wing Fernando Pisani, who had followed a modest 18-goal regular season with a playoff-leading 13 goals - five of them game winners, including the first short-handed overtime goal in finals history.
"It's all been happening so fast," Pisani said. "I'm sure when it's all said and done, I'll reflect on the whole season and especially the playoffs. I'll remember this for a lifetime."
Then there's Carolina, which handed over the nets to 22-year-old rookie Cam Ward after starting goalie Martin Gerber struggled in the Hurricanes' opening-round series against Montreal.
Ward became the first rookie since Patrick Roy in 1986 to post a shutout in the finals and came up with a DVD's worth of remarkable saves on the way to Game 7, including a stretching, tumbling glove stop on Edmonton's Radek Dvorek that might just be the best of the postseason.
"It happens every year," Carolina's Kevyn Adams said. "Sometimes, guys need confidence. You get a big goal here or you make a big save on the other end, and all of a sudden things start rolling."
It will be interesting to see if Pisani and Ward keep on rolling after Game 7. For some playoff stars, it never gets any better.
Ward, a first-round pick in 2002, already was being groomed to take over as Carolina's top goalie. Gerber's woes merely sped up the process for his young backup.
Pisani, on the other hand, has been slower to develop. The 29-year-old forward was an eighth-round choice in 1996 and spent 2 years in the American Hockey League before he made it to the Oilers.
He scored 16 goals in his first full season with Edmonton, then returned after the lockout to score 18 more. The Oilers hope the playoffs will propel Pisani to full-fledged stardom.
"He's one of those guys who's quiet, who kind of goes about his business and does his job," teammate Chris Pronger said.
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