PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Something's got to give.
While Pittsburgh's power-play has clicked at a 19.7 percent success rate (13-for-66) in the playoffs, Carolina's penalty-killing unit is off the charts with a 90.7 percent efficiency (5-of-54). The Hurricanes finished 19th in the League with an 80.4 percent success rate during the regular season.
Given those high marks for the Pittsburgh power-play and Carolina PK, it wouldn't be surprising if this best-of-7 series came down to the Hurricanes' power play (10.4 percent) against Pittsburgh's penalty-killing (81.6 percent), as both of those units have struggled in the postseason.
"I think in any series, from one round to the next, special teams play a key role whether a team is successful or not," Carolina forward Erik Cole told NHL.com.
Against the Boston Bruins, the Hurricanes yielded just two power-play goals in 25 times short. They stoned the Bruins on all four of their opportunities in the seventh and deciding game on Thursday at TD Banknorth Garden, including three successive chances in the second period.
Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice has made a concerted effort to use as many bodies on the PK as possible, enabling his players to remain fresh and energized. In his team's Game 7 victory over Boston, Maurice had 12 players rotating in for a chance on the PK, including defenseman Joni Pitkanen (game-high 4:27 of ice time while shorthanded).
"For the small part that coaches have in the outcome of games, Tom Rowe and Tom Barrasso are responsible for our penalty-killing," Maurice said. "In January, the managers and coaches sat down and decided we needed to change our penalty-kill a little bit and we basically stole the forecheck up ice from Boston."
The 'Canes, who arrived in Pittsburgh on Sunday and spoke to the media on the conference level of the William Penn Hotel in the afternoon, will no doubt attempt to do the same thing against the offensively gifted Penguins. The only problem is, the Pens are no doubt faster through the neutral zone than either of Carolina's two previous playoff opponents.
"Aside from Pittsburgh having a few world-class players, they have structure to their power-play," said Maurice. "We added some things to our own end and since that time, our penalty kill has drastically improved. We were 25th or 26th when we handed over the responsibility to Tom Barrasso and Rowe, and they've been a lot better. At the end of the day, I think it also coincides with Cam Ward emerging as our dominant defensive player. He's been spectacular."
Carolina center Eric Staal said he feels the opponent shouldn't matter if team executes its game plan while a man short.
"We've done a good job on PK during the playoffs and a lot of that has to do with Cam (Ward), but I think the coaching staff has done a good job in making sure we're prepared before the series as to what the other team is trying to do and accomplish on the power play," Staal said. "PK has a lot to do with execution and running your routes and doing them as hard as you can. We've got character guys in the room who make sure they do that and it shows in the results."
Staal recognizes that skilled players like Pens defenseman Sergei Gonchar can certainly make a difference. Despite missing two games after injuring his right knee as the result of a hit by Washington's Alex Ovechkin in Game 4 of the East semifinals, Gonchar still ranks fourth among defensemen in playoff scoring with 10 points. He has one goal and seven assists on the power play.
Gonchar returned for Game 7 against Washington on Wednesday but was held off the ice until practicing Sunday morning at the Pens training facility in Canonsburg, Pa. Gonchar told reporters that his availability for Monday's Game 1 against the Hurricanes "looked promising."
"With Gonchar on the back end, they can move the puck across the blue line very quickly and get pucks through," Staal said. "It presents a challenge but we can do it. We just need to get into those lanes and make sure we're hard on the right guys and do the simple things that make a PK successful."
Contact Mike Morreale at firstname.lastname@example.org.