Carolina fans brimming with pride heading into the Eastern Conference Finals after knocking off division winners New Jersey and Boston were in need of a major confidence boost Friday morning after falling into a two-game hole to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
I even found myself sharply defending the Canes in the press room as two out-of-town reporters contemplated a possible long layoff in the NHL playoff schedule if the Pens and Detroit Red Wings swept their respective series.
“Sweep? Aren’t you guys getting a little ahead of yourselves? Have you seen the Canes play over the last two months? This thing is going back to the Burg tied 2-2,” I said crispy and with without hesitation.
And while I truly believe in my heart Carolina could have won either Game 1 or Game 2 on the road – even both – there was a tinge of doubt I similarly felt heading into the Boston series, and whether the Canes and their magical late-season charge was just about out of juice.
Then, early in Paul Maurice’s press conference, I heard the magic words that put me at ease again, words that were uttered twice before during the first two postseason series.
“I don’t feel we’re that far off,” Maurice said.
What you must first know about Maurice is he’s not prone to coach speak, or spouting politically correct answers he wants his team to hear. So, when he tells me the Canes “are close” I tend to believe him. And I do have my own set of eyes that haven’t betrayed me since laser surgery a few years back.
Have there been egregious defensive lapses against two of the world’s greatest players – Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin? No question. Few will argue that point. Are the problems correctable? The Canes believe they are.
“It goes back to time and space,” Tim Gleason
said. “Last night, I had a lot of shifts against Malkin. He’s a heck of a hockey player, but at the same time we can control him. He’s not God, I guess you can say.”
“Both teams will look at their zones and say there are places here we have to be better,” added Maurice. “We scored four goals on the road and we’re tied in the third period and that’s our wheel house, that’s usually when we’re at our best. And the game-winning goal we were in good position on that goal, we had people where they were supposed to be. The sixth goal was highly unusual, but at the end of the day it’s in the back of your net. We’ve got to find a way to not let the puck come off their sticks the same way.”
Who is assigned to stick to the two Pittsburgh stars like the chewing gum left over from the movie “Hooisers” is anybody’s guess since Maurice was playing his potential lineup changes close to the vest. But it’s a good bet he’ll call on Joni Pitkanen
to shadow one of them, and maybe challenge his own star, Eric Staal
, to take a bigger defensive role in things. And the return of Tuomo Ruutu
is a possibility and would help on the physical side of things.
Normally, allowing six even-strength goals would bring into question the validity of a goalie’s performance. And while Cam Ward
can’t yet be compared to Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy, he’s getting close, so the next time he’ll see some pine is 2010. And there is no reason to question whether Ward is tired from his long stretch of pressure games dating to the final six weeks of the regular season.
“It’s funny you mention his name today because in this locker room his name hasn’t even been brought up,” Ray Whitney said of Ward. “It was the 18 players who were playing in front of him that was the problem.”
“Because of the quality of shooters Cam is going to have to pull three or four out of the air, he’s going to have to be able to do that,” added Maurice. “He’s done it before maybe once or twice a game for us, and he’s going to probably have to do it a little bit more, but we’re in the conference finals now, not Round One. He’s a huge, huge part of our game. I think the world of Cam Ward
. This guy is extra special. I’ve never really had a problem putting pressure on him or worried about taking pressure off him, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve just got to be better in front of Cam.’ Granted, we do, but we also have a very high expectation of this guy because he’s just fantastic.”
To say Carolina was “comfortable” being in an 0-2 deficit would be a misrepresentation of the stats at hand. But the Canes seemed relaxed and ready to tackle yet another monumental playoff series climb, especially since they’ve been getting their share of scoring chances and rebound attempts. Remember, the Hurricanes trailed each of their first two series before winning Game 7 road contests in each, and many key components of this team have Stanley Cup rings.
“We can’t get too much further back; we’re getting pretty close to having our backs against the wall,” said captain Rod Brind’Amour. “We’re going to have to fight back and leave our best effort out there. There is definitely not any feeling that we’re out of it. We’ve fought back all year and whenever we’ve had to come up with a big game we have. It’s that time again.”
“There is no doubt in this room. We’re excited to be back home. This is a great opportunity for us,” added Chad LaRose
, with goals in each of the first two games of this series. “This room accepts pressure pretty well. We’re excited to be here. There are teams, people and critics who have written us off before. We’ve got a great fan base.”
Maurice may have had the best answer to a question about a “must-win” scenario to avoid facing a three-game deficit out of the gate.
“They will let us play another one if we don’t (win),” Maurice joked. “We’ve been pretty good against the odds so far.”
While going out on a limb and guaranteeing a Carolina win Saturday night would be akin to journalist suicide, I will say this: “The Canes are not that far off.”