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Hurricanes defense has risen to the challenge

Wednesday, 05.20.2009 / 10:18 AM / Conference Finals: Pittsburgh vs. Carolina

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH - While much attention has been on Cam Ward during Carolina's march through the opening two rounds of the playoffs, Ward would be the first to admit that his defense has afforded him ample opportunity to succeed in the clutch.

"They've really stepped up, especially in the second half of the year when we really emphasized the defensive side of our zone," Ward said. "I think they're a little bit underrated in a lot of people's eyes, but not in mine because I think highly of them. They've logged a lot of minutes but are executing well and playing smart and that's what you have to do this time of the year."

Ward is 8-7 with a 2.28 goals-against average, .926 save percentage and two shutouts in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring. His team is hoping to get even with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday in Game 2 (7:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN, RDS).

Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford began piecing together the blue line following his team's Stanley Cup in 2006 when he first acquired Tim Gleason from Los Angeles in September of that year. The build continued the following season when Rutherford obtained Dennis Seidenberg from Phoenix and, in 2008, Joni Pitkanen from Edmonton and Joe Corvo from Ottawa.

"I suppose if you look at the stats, it seems like it took a while for our unit to get it together, but it's the mindset we have and the system we play that has enabled us to be successful," Seidenberg said. "If you buy into the system and if you execute it right, good things will happen."

Carolina coach Paul Maurice credits assistant Tom Rowe with how his defense has been able to play with some measure of consistency in front of Ward.

"Our entire operation hasn't stayed static at all (during playoffs)," Maurice said. "We've changed lines and changed matchups and we've done it regularly. (Frantisek) Kaberle, (Anton) Babchuk and Seidenberg have all sat out of games; Tom Rowe can do what he wants back there. We talk about the matchups we're looking for, but he runs that back end of the bench and has done it well."

Pitkanen has averaged a team-high 26:28 of ice time in 15 playoff games and Corvo (25:36), Seidenberg (22:05) and Gleason (20:34) aren't too far behind. They have each taken turns in playing some sort of big role in almost every successful outcome during the opening two rounds.

Seidenberg, despite missing two playoff games as a healthy scratch, was a force for Carolina in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins last Thursday when he notched two assists, dished out five hits and blocked six shots.

"Seidenberg's Game 7 (against Boston) was fantastic because it was all the things a defenseman is asked to do," Maurice said. "He took a ton of hits, won a lot of 1-on-1 battles and broke the puck out and that to me was a real key for us in winning."

That same game, Pitkanen also had two assists and Corvo blocked three shots. Few will forget Gleason's huge keep-in at the blue line that enabled the Hurricanes to eventually tie the New Jersey Devils with 1:20 remaining in the third period en route to a 4-3 victory in Game 7 in the opening round.

Gleason, Seidenberg and Corvo rank 1-2-3 on the team in blocked shots with 31, 30 and 22, respectively. Additionally, Gleason, Seidenberg and Pitkanen rank among the team's top eight in hits this postseason. Maurice has taken notice.

Carolina Hurricanes Playoff GearPitkanen, who began his career with the Flyers in 2003-04, also is tied with Corvo for the team scoring lead among defensemen with seven points -- all assists. He is deceptively smooth on the transition.

"I don't know how many times we've seen him go down the boards and you're not sure he can get by anybody -- it seems like the coverage is there on him," Maurice said. "But he slips by so he might have deceptive speed and good hands. But he does that consistently. The guys feed him wide and he takes it down the boards. All our defenders have played well at different times."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com
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