Hurricanes downgraded

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RALEIGH, N.C. -- There was no official announcement from any of the meteorological services, but when Evgeni Malkin walked in on Cam Ward and slipped the third Penguins goal of the first period (and the second in 31 seconds) between his pads, the Carolina Hurricanes had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

This morning they constitute little beyond an intermittent drizzle, not so much as the kind of annoyance that should disrupt your holiday weekend.

The Penguins are one win from a second consecutive Stanley Cup final, thanks again in large part to Malkin, who has 16 points in his past five games, six consecutive multipoint games in these playoffs, and the Hurricanes virtually shuddering at his very approach.

"That kind of skill level and that kind of passion," marveled veteran forward Bill Guerin at Malkin and Sidney Crosby, "we should be thanking their parents every night."

But Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final was every bit the predicate of Carolina bumbling as Penguins firepower, as the Hurricanes kept putting knives into themselves with bone-headed plays in the defensive zone, none more egregious perhaps than the one that wiped a 1-0 lead that wasn't three minutes old in the first period.

With Patrick Eaves in the box for slashing, the Hurricanes put into position a penalty-killing unit that had successfully killed 56 of 62 short-handed situations in these playoffs, so the play defenseman Tim Gleason made in front of Malkin was not only unpredictable, it was nearly unimaginable.

With Malkin advancing on a loose puck in the high slot, Gleason whacked at it with his backhand, rather than move his feet and escort Geno out of harm's way. The puck hit Malkin somewhere on the anterior and fell right to his blade. He swooped in on Ward, tied the score, and the Hurricanes would never lead again.

"We put a lot of pressure on them again," said Max Talbot after a 6-2 Penguins victory that could have been 10-2, "but we've got to give ourselves a little credit. We're putting them in situations where they're just in trouble."

There's nothing terribly just, truth be told, in singling out Gleason, because not only did fellow defenseman Joni Pitkanen make an equally ill-advised play in the final minute of the period, but Carolina's marquee players as a group have been virtual no shows for the first week of this series.

The Hurricanes are 7-0 in the postseason when Eric Staal scores a goal, but he hasn't scored since about Easter. Ward came into this confrontation having won every playoff series in his career and he's no closer to being the solution for Carolina than he is to being the problem.

Pitkanen's misplay was turning his back on Sidney Crosby as Bill Guerin floated tantalizingly down the left wing in the final minute of the first period. Crosby flew bat-like to Ward's doorstep and tipped in Guerin's centering pass to give the Penguins the lead they would not relinquish.

Carolina had been 5-0 in the playoffs when scoring first, but you can't polish a lead when you're making mistakes like these, and when you're getting nothing from Staal and nothing approaching the best of Ward and even less from Jussi "The Finnisher" Jokinen, you're pretty much destined for the kind of predicament the Hurricanes ponder drearily today.

"We're not as quick as we need to be to keep up with them," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "We're having a hard time in our gaps and with quickness issues. When you have to open up against them you're running a great risk. They're so good in transition that we outshot them, 18-9, in the third period and got beat, 3-1.

"Two days off isn't going to hurt them, but it will be a benefit for us, trying to get our quickness back and some jump in our legs."

Game 4 in this virtually inalterable series isn't until Tuesday night, and the Penguins don't plan to use the interim wondering if they're as good as they looked last night, much less whether Carolina is really this hopelessly overmatched.

"We didn't play a perfect game by any means," said Guerin, who flipped in the sixth Penguins goal. "If we happened to capitalize on some mistakes, that's great. Hockey's a game of mistakes. We just capitalized on a few of them tonight. I still think this is the best team we've played in the playoffs in terms of sticking to their system."

That might be right, but it's a low-pressure system that ought to be out of here by midweek.

Gene Collier can be reached at .


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