RALEIGH, N.C. --
As disappointing as it is for the Carolina Hurricanes
to have their season come to an end, there might be a silver lining in all this.
At least their players won't have to answer any more questions about Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
The Penguins locked up a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on Tuesday following a 4-1 victory over the Hurricanes in Game 4 of the Eastern Finals at RBC Center.
The two primary reasons for Carolina's ultimate demise: Crosby and Malkin.
They combined for eight goals, 16 points and a plus-11 rating in their team's four-game sweep. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh's two-headed monster was a usual ice breaker to most conversations in and around the Carolina locker room the minute this series was set. And they made certain their names were among the hot topics each and every morning with their dazzling display on the ice.
Have you ever seen two elite players playing at the level that Malkin and Crosby are?
Can you get under Malkin's skin?
How on earth can anyone match their production right now?
What are you doing wrong defensively? What needs to be changed?
And it continued on Tuesday, when Crosby finished with two assists and a plus-2 rating in a little over 20 minutes of work. Malkin was held pointless for the first time in this series, but it made no difference.
"They work hard and they're two of the best of the League so you have to give them all the credit," Carolina forward Scott Walker
said. "They have a great chance to win it all. I wouldn't want to play them in the Final."
Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo
didn't feel his team was entrenched in a personal battle against Crosby and Malkin.
"I don't think it was personal as it was so much just being able to show that we could beat this team," Corvo told NHL.com. "That's what we were more upset about. It's not really personal about those two players, but no team in the sports world wants to lose and that's what was eating at us the most."
Still, it's a wonder even a few players didn't just throw up their sticks in disgust and call a timeout -- that's what happens when two elite players happen to be at a level only they can understand. Whenever Malkin and Crosby stepped on the ice, you just sensed something magical was about to happen and it probably reached a point where the Hurricanes were thinking the same thing.
The 'Canes talked about back pressure, forcing more turnovers and the need to sustain longer puck possession off their forecheck, but all that is easier said than done against the Penguins. Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice
ran a forechecking scheme that attempted to pressure the Pens and limit their time and space. But in order to do this, the 'Canes had to pressure the Penguins defense and, as it turned out, their blueliners proved one step quicker off the transition. And once Crosby or Malkin got going, you could almost hear the collective gasp emanating from the 18,680 in attendance.
The 'Canes averaged just five takeaways in this series despite sticking to a game plan that worked wonders in two prior rounds. The club did post six takeaways on Tuesday in what could be considered their finest effort of the series.
Yet, it wasn't enough.
"I do think we saw a little different offensive machine here," Maurice said.
Perhaps the biggest testament to Pittsburgh's relentless pursuit was its success against one of the League's premier goaltenders in the playoffs in Carolina's Cam Ward
Ward, who entered the series with a 2.28 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in 14 postseason games, was turned into a human windshield wiper as the Pens continually forced him left-to-right or right-to-left upon entering the zone.
Ward would finish this series with a 4.25 GAA and .874 save percentage while allowing 17 goals on 135 shots -- certainly not something he expected at a time when his team had been playing so well in front of him the previous two rounds.
"I'm not sure we were focused on Crosby and Malkin (on Tuesday)," Carolina center Eric Staal
said. "You want to make sure you're aware of them, but the bottom line is we wanted to win the game and it didn't matter who scored on their team. We just needed to have more than they did and we didn't."
As far as the Hurricanes were concerned, Crosby and Malkin had already done most of their damage long before the fourth and final game of this series.