After three losses filled with defensive lapses to start the Eastern Conference finals, the Carolina Hurricanes and coach Paul Maurice can rattle off ad nauseum a laundry list of areas that need to be fixed. We’ve heard countless references to taking away “time and space” when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have the puck on their sticks, but at this point the Canes are running out of time and significant wiggle room as they face elimination Tuesday night.
And while it would be easy to point fingers at Carolina’s six defensemen, who are not without significant fault, the Canes all agree that better team defense is the answer in Game 4, not necessarily a show-stopping performance from Cam Ward or a crushing check or two from Tim Gleason.
It’s ironic that a franchise that has often looked for more offense as its playoff history has unfolded is now on the other end of the stick, yearning for a defensive shutdown game that will at least give Carolina some life in a series that has quickly spiraled out of control in Pittsburgh’s direction.
Carolina has allowed 113 shots to fall into an 0-3 hole in the best-of-seven series. That’s the most during a three-game span since the Canes surrendered 128 shots over three games in late October.
“Clearly the other team has an affect on your style, but you can’t turn pucks over in the neutral zone,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You can’t chase this team back to your end of the ice and expect a good sort out. And if you pull back and sit and wait on this team they’re coming to get ya. Do we want to play a different style of game? Sure, we want to play the one that we’ve won with.
“We’ve turned too many pucks over, we’re late on our back checks and our gaps aren’t good. We’ve giving up way too much ice. It all flows together,” Maurice said.
The translation is simple: Carolina’s forwards have done a relatively poor job hustling back on defense, which has allowed the Pens countless Grade A scoring chances on Ward through three games. And Pittsburgh’s snipers, so far, have been dead on.
“We sit here and look at the games and say, ‘What are we doing?’ They are great players but you certainly can’t make it easy on them and we’re giving them so much room and we’re doing things we haven’t done in the playoffs,” captain Rod Brind’Amour said. “To their credit, they are taking advantage of it every time. We’ve got to throw our best game at them and see what happens.”
The trick on Tuesday night is to tighten up on the defensive front without pulling back on the offensive side of the game. Maurice and his players believe that can be accomplished by paying attention to detail and sharing defensive responsibilities.
“We haven’t been patient,” Niclas Wallin said when asked about the defensive lapses. “We’ve got to trust each other and the stuff that got us here. We can’t change anything. There are small things we can adjust, but we’ve got to stay with our basic game and we haven’t done that.”
“Our defense needs a little bit of help from our guys up front,” added Maurice. “Crosby and Malkin are going to do some things in the offensive zone where we can’t contain one of them and when that happens we need -- not a mad rush to help -- but just a little better help. And we need to do things better and more consistently. This is not the time of year for major system or style changes. The systems stay, the style of your game. We’ve turned a puck over on the inside of the offensive line that we just can’t do a couple of times and it’s a real problem for us. We might have been able to shut that down against Jersey or Boston, but we’re seeing a different transition game, a much quicker transition game.”
Only two times in NHL history have teams overcome an 0-3 deficit to win a seven-game series. So, the Canes know they sit where many of the pigeons reside in Pittsburgh – on a ledge. With that said, knowing the odds, Carolina appears ready to tackle yet another underdog challenge in the playoffs.
“We have a focus and a belief in one game,” Maurice said. “And it will be stronger tomorrow than it is today. That’s our challenge, to get these guys up to believe something good can happen. We’ve got to get across that mental divide. We’ve done it before.
“There are 26 teams already home and we still have a chance, we still have an opportunity,” said Jussi Jokinen. “We’re still believing.”
Ward added his share of realism as reporters --- six deep -- crowded around the 2006 Conn Smythe Award winner, looking for answers to Carolina’s woes.
“What’s happened in the first three games is really over,” Ward said. “I would like to change it, everybody in here would like to change it, but at the end of the day we can’t and we’ve got to move on and move forward.”
Does the pressure rest squarely on his shoulders in Game 4? Is it time once again for the Warden to rescue the Canes from elimination? Maybe so, but Ward is fine with that mental baggage.
“That’s why I’m a goaltender, that’s why I signed up for this,” he said. “I want to be that guy to come up with the big save and perform at a high level. If we do make some mistakes I want to be there to bail us out.
“A lot of people are counting us out of the series right now and it just opens the door for an opportunity to show people what we can really do. This is just another opportunity to show we can get through this. I believe in the team and I’m sure everybody in here believes we can do it. We’ll throw it all out there tomorrow night.”
We’ve seen this high-wire act before from the Canes in the 2009 playoffs, and for that matter, 2002 and ’06. And while the rest of the hockey world is already counting this one in the books as a return trip to the finals for Pittsburgh, those of us in the Triangle have seen too many rallies, too many miracles, to quit dreaming just yet. “Don’t talk to me today about being down,” Chad LaRose said. “I would be down if this series was over, but it’s not. We’ve got to grab a hold of the big opportunity in front of us. Forget history, just getting to the Stanley Cup finals is enough motivation for us in this room.”