A ferocious storm descends on Mellon Arena tomorrow night in the form of the Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina enters the Eastern Conference finals as possibly the hottest team left in the National Hockey League, earning their spot by defeating two of the top three conference seeds. The Pittsburgh Penguins are not exactly cold though, winning four of their last five games to send the Washington Capitals packing.
There are many story lines surrounding this series, but none bigger than the matchup of Carolina’s Eric Staal versus Penguins center and younger brother Jordan Staal. Eric leads the Hurricanes with nine goals and 13 points while Jordan has only registered five points, but expect the Staal brothers to be seeing a lot of each other this series as the Penguins will try and neutralize Eric’s scoring ability with Jordan’s defensive presence.
Both of these teams have been to the Stanley Cup finals since the lockout, but who do the odds favor to return to hockey’s biggest stage?
For the first time in the post-season the coaching advantage goes to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Bylsma showed great poise last series after dropping the first two games; he was not quick to change the lines and made the proper adjustments necessary to come back and win a tough game seven in Washington. Every series win makes the new Pittsburgh coach more confident, and his high aggression strategy made him look like a genius against the Capitals.
Maurice is in his second stint with the Hurricanes and is trying to make his first trip back to the finals since 2002. The main attribute that the Hurricanes coach brings to the table is that the players love him. He is the exact opposite of Bruce Boudreau in the way that he defends his players and stays behind them which gives them more confidence.
Maurice may have the experience, but Bylsma has the better team and the hot hand.
Pittsburgh–Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Bill Guerin
Carolina–Eric Staal/Ray Whitney/Erik Cole
If there is one lopsided advantage for either team in this series it is the Penguins offense. Pittsburgh boast’s the playoff leader in points in Sidney Crosby, whose 12 goals already double his 2008 playoff amount. The trouble for the Hurricanes is that Crosby brings his best in the playoffs, and he seems to only get better as the post-season wears on. The Penguins’ Staal also figures to be a main contributor this series, as he is starting to heat up after scoring his first two goals of the playoffs against the Capitals. Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy came alive late last series, while Ruslan Fedotanko has been put up solid offensive production. Most importantly watch for Evgeni Malkin to take out his playoff frustration on the Hurricanes this series now that he is not being overshadowed by Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
Carolina gets production from everyone, and that makes them a dangerous offense, as was evidenced by Scott Walker’s game seven overtime goal against the Boston Bruins. Jussi Jokinen and Sergie Samsonov have found some rhythm in the post-season after having average regular seasons, however the Stanley Cup Playoffs have a habit of weeding out the pretenders when it gets to be crunch time. Eric Staal is the main offensive threat of this team; he has recorded nine goals and four assists in these playoffs but does much more on the ice than statistics would indicate. If the Hurricanes want to make this a series they need to get better production from Erik Cole and Ray Whitney. Cole has been a disappointment thus far, recording only two points this post-season while Whitney himself tallied only two points during the Boston series.
Too many players are catching fire at the right time for the Penguins, look for all four lines to contribute during the Western Conference Finals.
Pittsburgh–Sergei Gonchar/Brooks Orpik/Kris Letang
Carolina–Joni Pitkanen/Joe Corvo/Frantisek Kaberle
Neither of these teams’ strengths are their defenses, which means that either of these teams’ defenses can make the difference. The Hurricane’s Joni Pitkanen is a do-it-all defensemen who is playing his best hockey at the right time. He has seven assists in the playoffs and is a seasoned veteran who will not crack under pressure–Pitkanen is Carolina’s Sergie Gonchar. Joe Corvo and Frantisek Kaberle are both strong defensive presences who have the ability to turn the puck up ice and create scoring opportunities through quick movement. Even though the Hurricane’s defensive core is not exceptionally talented, they work hard and stand their ground. The Penguins offense should overwhelm them this series though, as Bylsma’s high-pressure system will force them into costly turnovers.
The Penguin’s defensive scheme in the conference finals must be the same three pronged strategy as it was last round.
- Sergei Gonchar must match the production of the Hurricane’s top offensive defensemen. Last series Gonchar recorded a point in every game he played in, while the Capital’s Mike Green only had four points in seven games. If ‘Sarge’ can match his performance from last round then Pittsburgh will have no trouble going to the finals again.
- Kris Letang must continue to play his best hockey. After a benching in the first round, Letang stepped up against Washington and scored six points in seven games, including the crucial overtime winner in game three. The positive here for Pittsburgh is that confidence is no longer an issue for the 22-year-old Penguins defensemen and his streaky play appears to have came to an end last round.
- Hal Gill must fight the urge to practice any of his MMA moves on Marc-Andre Fleury during one-goal games. Gill’s mistake in game six last round almost costs the Penguins the series,and another mental collapse like that should mean that Petr Sykora will have some company to watch the game with.
If there is one bright spot for the Pittsburgh power play it is that the Carolina power play is worse. The Hurricane’s only clicked on 10.4% of their man-advantage opportunities–9.3 % below the Penguins. Carolina makes up for their poor power play with the second best penalty kill in the league though, which should make for an interesting matchup if the Penguin’s power play continues with the efficiency it did in games six and seven of last round where they went six for 13.
The Penguins are a disciplined team, so the advantage here goes to Pittsburgh. The Penguins seemed to have realized that you cannot score on the power play without putting shots on the net. Look for the Pittsburgh power play to be dominant in this series.
Pittsburgh–Marc Andre Fleury
There are two different issues to be examined when looking at this category.
- Which goalie is playing better right now?
- Which goalie is better when playing their best hockey?
The answer to both of these questions are quite simple. Right now Cam Ward is playing better hockey, and has probably been the best goalie throughout the playoffs. Ward has recorded two shutouts and has an outstanding save percentage of .927–not to mention that he was the main reason Carolina defeated New Jersey in the first round. The Hurricane’s goalie is clutch when it comes to playoffs, never losing a series in his career and winning two game sevens in this year’s post-season alone. Ward also won the Conn Smythe trophy in 2006 as playoff MVP when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. Make no doubt about it, Ward is the best goalie the Penguins will face in the playoffs.
Marc-Andre Fleury on the other hand seems to have got back into the groove after his highlight reel save on Ovechkin in the first minutes of game seven. Many Penguin’s fans felt that Fleury had a bad series where in reality he was just outshined by Simeon Varlamov. The Pittsburgh goalie was not terrible in the Washington series, he just was not spectacular–which is how Penguins fans are used to seeing him. If Fleury and Ward both play their best hockey ‘The Flower’ will steal the show, but seeing as how the playoffs are based on what players are doing now and not what they can do, the advantage has to go to Carolina.
The Pittsburgh offense has turned into a juggernaut and is showing no signs of slowing down–ask Varlamov who came into the Capitals/Penguins series as the hottest goalie in the league and left the series watching Jose Theodore reclaim his crease. The biggest danger for Carolina is that Pittsburgh won their first two series by not playing their best hockey until game seven of the second round. Too many Penguins are finding their playoff stride at the most crucial part of the season. Pittsburgh will overwhelm Carolina in six games, and it will only go six because Ward will steal one for the Hurricanes.
Advantage: Pittsburgh 4 games, Carolina 2 games