The No. 4 seed Pittsburgh Penguins and the No. 6 seed Carolina Hurricanes will clash in the Eastern Conference finals beginning Monday night. Here are 10 items for your consideration about this matchup.
10. Staal vs. Staal. All we really need to know we learned on Versus, and they've mentioned a few times that Eric Staal(notes) of the Hurricanes and Jordan Staal(notes) of the Penguins are, in fact, related. Brothers, even. Again, this information is presented rather infrequently by Versus whenever any of the Staals play each other. It's not like there's a drinking game for it or anything.
Eric Staal is authoring a Conn Smythe résumé this postseason (nine goals, four assists). Game 7 against the Boston Bruins was the first time Carolina won in the playoffs without Staal scoring a goal. He's kind of a big deal.
It took 10 playoff games before Jordan Staal (two goals, three assists) scored a goal, but he contributed in other ways; namely leading the Penguins' energy checking line with Tyler Kennedy(notes) and Matt Cooke(notes).
The fun part, of course, is that the brothers will likely face each other all series as the top offensive and top defensive centers on their teams. Thus far, Jordan (51.2) has the better faceoff percentage than Eric (42.5). But Eric is older and, hence, cooler.
9. Fleury vs. the forecheck. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's(notes) stick-handling deficiencies are an opponent's best friend. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, have shown a knack for furious forechecking and tenacious physical play in the offensive zone. So if you're one of those people on the lookout for turning points in a game and/or series, it might just be Fleury's remedial stick-work gift-wrapping a puck for a Hurricanes forward. Then it's just a matter of one of the 'Canes not attempting to go glove side, or else he'll be stonewalled like his name was Ovie.
8. Scott Walker(notes) is Sinister. We say again for clarity's sake: Scott Walker punched Aaron Ward in the face, had an automatic suspension overturned by the NHL and two games later scored the winning goal in overtime to eliminate Ward's team. Everyone's all sorts of apologetic now, but it doesn't change the fact that this was a moment of Claude Lemieuxian postseason villainy. Walker has five points in the playoffs, or one-third of his regular season output. Beware!
7. The Penguins power play vs. the 'Canes kill. Pittsburgh's power play is performing at a 19.7 percent clip in the postseason, and the Penguins scored at least one goal with the man advantage in their four wins over the Washington Capitals. If Sergei Gonchar(notes) is healed up, this power play becomes quite deadly; especially if Sidney Crosby(notes) continues his Dave Andreychuk impression near the crease.
Ah, but can they score on the Hurricanes' kill? Carolina's killing at a 90.9 percent clip and has been especially strong on home ice. A key battle in the series, for sure.
6. Bill Cowher, there can be only one. Earlier this month, we discussed former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher's allegiance to the Carolina Hurricanes, as he's a local celebrity down in Raleigh. He's also a native Pittsburgher who watched the Penguins since their inception. A decision must be made, and the Pittsburgh media is wondering which team 'ole lantern jaw is going to throw his support behind in the conference finals. Meanwhile, we're hoping for the emergence of a Steel City wrestler to counter Ric Flair. Does Kurt Angle count?
5. Carolina's speed on defense. The Hurricanes have a pesky defense filled with strong skaters (Joni Pitkanen(notes), Joe Corvo(notes)) and underrated defenders (Tim Gleason(notes), Dennis Seidenberg(notes)). But it's the ability of their forwards to back-check the hell out of opponents in the defensive zone that's made a difference in this postseason. Ask Boston, which had trouble establishing itself offensively all series.
To counter that, the Penguins need to control the forecheck deep in the Carolina zone much like they did against the Capitals; that goes for players like Crosby and Malkin to players like Talbot and Cooke.
4. The Cardiac 'Canes. Carolina earned the reputation for winning games dramatically ... oh, probably right around the time Jussi Jokinen(notes) scored with 0.2 seconds left against the Devils in the first round and sent Marty Brodeur into a stick-smashing tantrum.
Since then, the legend has grown. According to Rod Brind'Amour:
"It doesn't seem to be just lately, and I don't know if there's any reason for it, other than the fact that we're pretty level-headed. We don't get too rattled in big situations. It's not that big a deal. We just seem to be able to go play, whether it's overtime or whether it's the first period. Maybe that has something to do with it."
Yeah, maybe. Or maybe "Putting Teams Away in the First Period 'Canes" would just sound stupid.
3. The Penguins don't need a reason to care. Know this about the Penguins in their series against the Capitals: They exuded a "been there, done that" level of cool during some chaotic moments. In Game 7, they could have skated out in business suits and it would have been apropos.
The point is that they're not going to make the same mistakes the Devils and Bruins did, which was either taking the 'Canes for granted or failing to find the right emotional motivation. Boston needed five games to find the hate that drove it in the first round against Montreal. Pittsburgh's not going to need Scott Walker to punch a dude in the face to light a fire under them. Being four wins away from another chance at the Cup will be motivation enough.
2. Cam Ward(notes) is Cam Ward. Pensburgh makes the observation that Cam Ward has never lost a playoff series. We make the observation that Cam Ward's name has basically become a euphemism for an underestimated goalie backstopping a team to a series victory. (i.e. "Well, we would have won the series if we didn't get Cam Ward'd by whats-his-face.")
Ward has a 2.22 GAA and a .927 save percentage in the playoffs, posting two shutouts. He's only really had one dud, which was Game 6 against the Bruins. Otherwise, he's been as great as the 'Canes have been great in front of him. He's also 2-0 with a 1.49 GAA against Pittsburgh this season; including a 3-2 win April 4.
1. Finally, Crosby is pretty much playing out of his mind right now. With 12 goals and nine assists -- his 21 points lead all scorers in the playoffs -- Crosby has vanquished Mike Richards(notes), outplayed Alexander Ovechkin(notes) and is now on a mission to win his first Stanley Cup. He's elevated and modulated his game, playing gritty hockey in front of the net. Watching the Penguins, you get the sense that Crosby's not going to allow them to lose. And that takes a special player. The Hurricanes are going to have to figure out a way to neutralize him. And then after they do that, all they have to worry about is Malkin ...
... so the prediction here is Penguins in six. We've been impressed throughout the postseason with the Hurricanes, and would never count them out of this series. Not for a minute. But the Penguins' poise in the semifinals was impressive. Fleury's play, outside of a few hiccups, has been championship quality. And their depth can match that of the Hurricanes. It won't be easy, and we'll likely have a few more "Cardiac 'Canes" moments. But when it's over, the Penguins are going to play for the Stanley Cup for the second straight season.