RALEIGH, N.C. --
The Carolina Hurricanes
needed this game in order to extend their season, and center Eric Staal
and goalie Cam Ward
played like it.
When the Hurricanes needed a determined push up ice, there was Staal leading the way. When the club needed that extra save in their defensive end to keep their hopes alive, there was Ward standing tall. It's what you would expect from two of the game's most admired performers and the two stars on this Hurricanes team that seemed to defy the odds.
And while the end result didn't turn out as planned -- the Pittsburgh Penguins
defeated the Hurricanes 4-1 in Game 4 on Tuesday to complete a four-game sweep in their Eastern Conference Finals series -- their efforts didn't go unnoticed.
"I thought (Staal) was great," Carolina coach Paul Maurice
said. "For me, it was almost his season in a series. Early on, when we first got here, we had a player that cared so much and had taken the weight of the team on his shoulders, and he was trying every shift to be the difference for the hockey team and feeling that pressure. I thought he settled down (on Tuesday) and played a real smart, smart game.
"He didn't try to beat everybody all over the ice," Maurice continued. "He looked stronger, looked faster, made better changes, made better decisions with the puck and pushed at the right time."
Maurice admitted earlier on Tuesday that he wanted to see his team go out with a bang and not a whimper. That's precisely what he got as the Hurricanes outshot the Penguins 16-10 in the second and 10-5 in the third to become the first team in 12 games to outshoot Pittsburgh (31-25) in a game.
In addition to finding a crack in the Penguins' defensive armor just 1:36 into the opening period, Staal seemed to have finally found a weakness on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
with his wraparound just inside the left post to give his team a 1-0 edge.
It was Staal's team-leading 10th of the playoffs, but it would mark the first time in eight games the Hurricanes would lose when their alternate captain scored a goal in these playoffs.
"Things didn't go our way even after a good start and were pushing hard," Staal said. "It would have been nice to score on that power play we were given (at 9:52 of the first), but it didn't work out. We were still in the fight but it just didn't fall our way."
Staal, who opened the game on a line with Cole and Sergei Samsonov
, skated hard and with a purpose, and did plenty of curling and dragging as the final minutes ticked away in his season. He just didn't want it to end.
He led all forwards on his team in ice time (22:30) and shifts (30) while generating five shots on goal and winning 13 of 23 faceoffs (57 percent). He was a tower of strength in every zone, giving his team a fighter's chance and its fans a reason to believe.
The 'Canes actually played one of their better first periods of the series but were still in a 2-1 hole on the scoreboard when Maxime Talbot
launched a shot that caromed off the stick of Anton Babchuk
and over the outstretched glove of Ward to snap a 1-1 tie with just 1:29 left. Despite being outshot, 9-5, the 'Canes were able to sustain some pressure in the Penguins end and provide Fleury with some tense moments.
"I lost sight of it and it was kind of a fluke goal but they make their own breaks," Ward said.
Ward, who entered the contest 5-0 when facing an elimination game and, like Staal, had never lost a Stanley Cup Playoff series, was called upon numerous times in the second. One of his nine saves in the middle period came off the stick of Mark Eaton
off a two-on-one with less than 10 minutes remaining and his team trailing by one.
Despite the fact Ward played with a few aches and pains, Maurice considered him a rock in goal throughout the entire playoffs.
"(Ward) was just spectacular," Maurice said. "In the first two series, he was, you know, the Eric Staal
of our defense; our leader back there. He made huge saves in critical times. He settled into who he is as a goaltender and he showed how important he is to our franchise. He played an awful lot of games and he learned how to accept the role of a dominant No. 1 guy."
Maurice knows the franchise is in good hands with Ward and Staal aboard for years to come.
"They both found their way to lead this team and carry this team and that's a sign of great maturity and acceptance," Maurice said. "They played their best hockey at a critical time."