The Pittsburgh Penguins against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals is about much more than the Staal family feud, although the matchup between Carolina's Eric Staal and Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal should be a compelling story line throughout this series, especially if form holds and Jordan, the younger brother, sees significant time matched against older brother Eric in the series.
For Pittsburgh, you have two of the biggest names in the game playing some of their best hockey. Sidney Crosby is coming off a series to remember in out-dueling Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. His 12 goals lead the playoffs and his 21 points is tied for the League lead with Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin, a MVP candidate in the regular season, has 19 points
For Carolina, it is the brilliance of Eric Staal and Cam Ward, who have been the one-two punch to carry Carolina to four straight Game 7 victories in this team's last two playoff runs. Let's not forget about the magic of Jussi Jokinen for these "Cardiac Canes" or that of Scott Walker, the Game 7 hero against Boston in the second round.
Who will emerge as the Eastern Conference representative in the Stanley Cup Final? That remains to be seen, although the results from the last round suggest that it will take a full seven games to find out the answer.
Sidney Crosby showed why he's the best player on the planet with his performance against the Washington Capitals. Going head-to-head against Alex Ovechkin, Crosby had 8 goals and 13 points. He's among the postseason leaders with 12 goals and 21 points.
Evgeni Malkin also was dominant at times. He almost single-handedly won Game 3 against Washington, and his line with Ruslan Fedotenko and Maxime Talbot was the Penguins' best, scoring big goals and producing consistently strong shifts.
The rest of the lineup started slow but picked up the pace as the second round wore on. After Crosby scored four of the Pens' first five goals, Pittsburgh got goals from 10 players the rest of the series, including three each from Ruslan Fedotenko and Bill Guerin.
Fourth-liners Craig Adams and Miroslav Satan also got into the act -- Adams scored his first career playoff goal in Game 7, and Satan had assists in three of the last four games, including a pair in Game 7.
Eric Staal has been the most dominant forward at times in these playoffs. His run during Carolina's three-game winning streak against Boston was simply mesmerizing. He is a scary combination of speed and brute force that few defensemen can handle, just ask Zdeno Chara.
Jussi Jokinen, meanwhile, is the feel-good story of these playoffs. Every time Carolina has needed a big goal, there has been Jokinen, aka "The Finnisher." But Carolina's problem has been secondary scoring. After Staal, Jokinen, Ray Whitney and Chad LaRose, there has been precious little contribution. How bad has it been? After 14 games, Erik Cole still does not have a goal and Rod Brind'Amour waited until Game 7 of the Boston series to get his first goal of the postseason.
Sergei Gonchar's return to health energizes this group. Gonchar returned from the right knee injury that kept him out of Games 5 and 6 against Washington to have an assist in 15:06 of ice time in Game 7.
The Penguins' defensemen won't ever stand out, but they do lead the postseason in blocked shots.
Carolina did not have the big-name defender like Boston's Zdeno Chara, but somehow got the job done. Carolina's defense is very mobile, with just the right amount of snarl thrown in. Plus, defensemen are integral in Carolina's attack, blasting away from the blue line and keying the transition.
Dennis Seidenberg was very good against Boston, despite being a constant target of the Bruins forecheck. Joni Pitkanen, his partner, generated some of the best scoring opportunities of the series against Boston, but could not convert. Tim Gleason, meanwhile, provided the physical presence that kept Boston's forwards away from Cam Ward for most of the series. Anton Babchuk, though, struggled mightily at times against Boston and was replaced by Frantisek Kaberle in Game 7.
Tale of the tape
G - CAR (#30)
height: 6' 1"
'09 PLAYOFF stats:
G - CAR (#30)
height: 6' 1"
'09 PLAYOFF stats:
Cam Ward worked his playoff magic again, winning the third huge Game 7 of his career, a run that started with the Stanley Cup-winning Game 7 against Edmonton in 2006 and was followed by the unforgettable Game 7 last round in New Jersey. When the pressure is truly on, the young Ward has found a way to respond. His 34-save performance in Carolina's overtime win in Game 7 allows people to forget that he allowed 12 goals in Boston's three wins during the last series.
Dan Bylsma has a certain philosophy and a way he wants his team to play, and nothing seems to divert him from that path. That confidence seeps down to the players, who have completely bought in. Since doing so has gotten them to the Eastern Conference Finals, it's easy for them to keep right on believing.
Paul Maurice refused to let his team implode after blowing a 3-1 lead in the series against Boston and falling down three games to two against New Jersey. He is a master motivator -- see his "I believe in this team" speech after Game 6 against Boston for proof -- that is also a very good tactician. He is not afraid to shift around his lines to get players going and usually will only line-match when absolutely necessary. His decision to move Scott Walker to the top line in Game 7 against Boston led directly to the winning goal.
The Penguins' maligned power play has gotten better as the playoffs have gone on. After an 0-for-17 streak that started against Philadelphia and carried through Game 1 against Washington, they've scored at least one extra-man goal in their last six games.
Their penalty killing allowed five power-play goals on 19 attempts.
Carolina's power play was better against Boston than it was against New Jersey, but that isn't saying much. It's hard to fathom that the Hurricanes are in the Eastern Conference Finals with a power-play unit that is hovering around the 10 percent mark. What that means is that their 5-on-5 play and penalty killing have to be extra good, and that has been the case. In fact, Carolina is the best PK team left in the playoffs, hovering around 90 percent throughout the first two rounds. They killed four huge Boston power plays in the Game 7 victory.
Eric Cole, Carolina -- Cole is too good -- and spends too much time on Carolina's top two lines -- to be so ineffective in the scoring category. He needs to be better, especially on the power play, to alleviate some of the pressure on Eric Staal and Ray Whitney. Cole has world-class speed to get to the outside of defenders, but he has not been able to translate that advantage into quality scoring opportunities on a regular basis. If he finds the answer, he will give Carolina a whole new look.
Penguins will win if... Pittsburgh will win if: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin create matchup problems for the Hurricanes. Let's face it, these two make it a tough road to hoe for any team. If they get into a game of "Can you top this?" the Penguins will be tough to stop.
Hurricanes will win if... Cam Ward is the best player in this series. The Hurricanes love to play low-scoring, tight games in the playoffs. Paul Maurice calls it being comfortable in the grind, but basically, the Hurricanes want to keep games close so they can stay in their system and exert mental pressure on an opponent, waiting to exploit whatever cracks appear. To do that against the explosive Penguins, Ward will have to be at the very top of his game.