TORONTO (AP) -- Ron Francis doesn't recognize his old team anymore.
The Carolina Hurricanes, for so long a bust in the playoffs, are on their way to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time.
"This team has certainly come a long way," Francis, the team captain, said Tuesday night. "The guys in the locker room showed character and found a way to come back."
The Hurricanes eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, winning 2-1 on a score by Martin Gelinas 8:05 into overtime for the biggest goal in franchise history.
The play ended a remarkable run by the Maple Leafs, who got a goal from Mats Sundin with 21.8 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
The Hurricanes will play the winner of the Colorado-Detroit series, which the Avalanche lead 3-2. The finals could start as early as Saturday at Colorado if the Avalanche win at home Wednesday night.
The Hurricanes, who moved to Raleigh, N.C., from Hartford, Conn., following the 1996-97 season, had not won a best-of-seven series in their previous 21 years.
"It seemed like forever. And now it seems like just a short trip. Things work that way," Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. said amid the locker room celebration. "It's been a great team all year. They've fought adversity all year and they've always done very well."
Francis knows how special this is. He broke into the NHL when the team was in Hartford in 1981. After winning two Cups in the early 1990s with Pittsburgh, he signed with Carolina as a free agent in 1998.
"At my age, I didn't have many chances left," said Francis, who turned 39 in March. "I owe a lot to the guys in the locker room. They have worked incredibly hard each and every night. And I'm certainly grateful for that chance."
Also grateful is Gelinas. Three years after he missed a critical shot in the playoffs, Gelinas redirected Josef Vasicek's hard centering pass for the biggest goal of his career.
In a 1999 first-round series against Boston, Gelinas chipped a shot over an open net. The Bruins came back to win that game in overtime, and eventually the series.
"There's tough things that happen for everybody, and it's all in the past," Gelinas said. "Now, the future, and the future is ahead. We are in the finals, and that's what it's all about."
It was a fitting goal from a gritty player, symbolizing the determination the Hurricanes have shown this postseason.
"He's worked so hard," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "He deserves a little sunshine."
Toronto, overcoming injuries and two seven-game series already, had avoided elimination four times this postseason, including Saturday's 1-0 win at Carolina.
Toronto kept winning even with coach Pat Quinn spending most of last week in hospital being monitored for an irregular heartbeat. He returned to coach after missing Saturday's game.
"Physically, fine," he said. "But I've never figured out a way to deal well with losing yet. So that doesn't sit too well."
The Leafs lost despite goaltender Curtis Joseph's stellar 33-save performance. And they failed to get a lift from Sundin's goal at the close of regulation -- 10 minutes after Carolina's Jeff O'Neill opened the scoring.
The Hurricanes beat the Maple Leafs all three times in Toronto and, coincidentally, also won their previous two series in six games, both times on the road. It was the fourth game of the series that ended 2-1.
The teams set an NHL playoff record for fewest goals in a six-game series. Carolina and Toronto combined for 16 goals, eclipsing the previous record of 20, which the Hurricanes matched in the first round with New Jersey.
Toronto, which won last won the Stanley Cup in 1967, has now gone 35 years since reaching the finals -- the longest stretch of any NHL team.
"It's the hardest championship to win in sports. And I don't think the stars exactly lined up for us this year," Joseph said. "A big credit to our team. We were hard to put out, and we were very resilient. I was proud of a lot of guys in here."
Notes: The Leafs failed to score against Carolina in a 5-on-5 situation. Three of Toronto's five goals came on the power play, two with their goalie pulled and one 4-on-4. ... The Hurricanes improved to 11-0 in the playoffs when they score two or more goals. The Maple Leafs fell to 4-10 when allowing two or more goals. ... None of the 18 teams that eliminated Montreal since 1968 has gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Carolina was the 19th team to do so in the previous round.
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