Cup credentials daunting
From left, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Sergei Gonchar pose with the Prince of Wales Trophy after beating the Carolina Hurricanes to win the Eastern Conference title last night.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury shakes hands with Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward after defeating Carolina last night at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C.
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- That the Penguins will skate for Lord Stanley's Cup in consecutive seasons is a striking testament to their skill and heart and to talented people throughout their organ-I-zation, and this morning no one should doubt their championship credentials.
Go ahead, look 'em over.
They were hectored by the belligerent Philadelphia Flyers, pushed to the edge by the ultra-talented Washington Capitals, and -- what is the verb phrase here -- given a vigorous massage by the Carolina Hurricanes.
OK, drop the "vigorous."
"Not in a million years," said Penguins forward Craig Adams when someone asked if he could have envisioned a sweep of his former team. "You never know what it's going to feel like when you're preparing, but I think these were four hard-fought games even if the scores didn't indicate it."
Last night's 4-1 skunking, coming three nights after a 6-2 affair, actually left little room for interpretation.
Carolina's last best hope to convert the Eastern Conference final into something even vaguely competitive was thought to be the urgent reappearance of a hockey phenomenon never before seen in this series -- a puck in the net from the stick of Eric Staal.
Since the Hurricanes were 7-0 in this postseason when Staal put one in, 1-9 when he didn't, the disc in the net behind Marc-Andre Fleury 96 seconds after they dropped the puck for Game 4 was considered a talisman, some tangible signal to the 18,680 (including a certain former football coach with plenty of experience falling a step short of the championship round at home) that the dynamic of Penguins dominance had been curdled, that this game would not be more of the same dreary defensive play that put the home team in this inescapable predicament in the first place.
But Staal's wraparound goal in the second minute proved another empty Hurricane warning, and for the very reason Carolina lost Game 3 Saturday night, which was the very reason they lost Game 2 Thursday, which is the very reason they lost this series. They continually allowed Penguins to fly unimpeded to the net.
Penguins can't fly, but you would never know it from this series.
Staal's first goal of the series was on the board less than seven minutes when Carolina defenseman Dennis Seidenberg let Ruslan Fedotenko swoop to the doorstep to the right of Cam Ward. Fedotenko took Philippe Boucher's crossing pass and tapped it home to erase the last Hurricanes lead of the hockey season.
"I think of all the sports hockey is the one where it's hardest to create scenarios in the offensive zone," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma found himself saying late last night. "There are so many factors that can change the plan, the ice, the boards -- it's never a matter of saying, 'OK, you stand here.' It's hard to defend behind the net, and you can create some space for others by drawing attention to yourself. They did a good job in our end sometimes, too, but as a team, that's why we want to play in the offense zone, because there are so many possibilities."
There were way too many for the Hurricanes.
Ward, who had never lost a playoff series and was unbeaten in Game 7s, couldn't drag this fluffy defensive team even to a Game 5, and the goal that put the Penguins ahead to stay was somehow oddly symbolic.
Hurricanes defenseman Niclas Wallin gave the puck away at the Penguins' blue line, where Max Talbot gathered it in full streak through the neutral zone. Anton Babchuk was back for the Hurricanes, but Talbot blasted one anyway. The puck smacked the shaft of Babchuk's stick and headed for the net like a butterfly toward the attic window. By the time Ward found it -- they generally don't come in with altitudes -- the butterfly was in the net.
Unique as Talbot's goal surely was, it was just another instance in which Ward might have stopped it if only he could see it. The Penguins have gotten so much space in front of him that the puck has been in the net before Ward has seen it time after time.
In Game 3, Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason made deadly mistakes in their end that were the equal of Seidenberg's last night, allowing Crosby and Malkin to skate right in on Ward.
"It didn't seem like we had that much room," Adams said. "Sometimes they made mistakes in the defense end, but that happens in hockey. Sometimes there are mistakes and other times you'll hear guys say, 'We just lost track of the guy.' Now of course you'll say, 'How can they lose track of a Malkin or a Crosby?' But that's why they're great players. That's why they're Malkin and Crosby."
There are no compelling reasons why the Penguins can't put their hands on something more substantial than the Prince of Wales Trophy in the next couple of weeks. But of this there is certainty: They won't see as much open ice in the next four games as in these last four, and probably not in the next seven.
âž¤CHAT: Join PG sports editor Jerry Micco for his weekly online chat at noon.
âž¤VIDEO:See postgame interviews from last night's game and fan video from Mellon Arena at www.post-gazette.com
First Published May 27, 2009 12:00 am