RALEIGH, N.C. --
|Marc-Andre Fleury makes on save on Matt Cullen during the third period of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals in Raleigh, N.C.. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker) |
There are a number of reasons why the Pittsburgh Penguins virtually lapped a very good -- and very game -- Carolina Hurricanes team in a stunning four-game ouster in what many expected to be a much more evenly balanced Eastern Conference Finals.
But here are the five most telling reasons why the Penguins are making plans to face either the Detroit Red Wings or the Chicago Blackhawks -- Detroit leads the Western Conference Finals 3-1 -- in the Stanley Cup Final.
Losing to Detroit in the Stanley Cup Final last June was painful but necessary. It is a rite of passage most teams must go through before they are worthy of being called champions. The lessons learned in falling just short of your lifelong dream -- particularly on the mental side of the ledger -- are invaluable the next time around. All of Pittsburgh's key players -- Sidney Crosby
, Evgeni Malkin
, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
-- lived through the tempest of last year's Final, a six-game defeat to an experienced Detroit club, and came out the other side with a lot more mental toughness.Health --
Pittsburgh had few injury worries in the Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, Sergei Gonchar hurt his knee in the previous round, but he was able to play in every game of the Eastern Conference Finals, getting better with each contest. How hurt could a player who saw close to 20 minutes a game really be? Carolina, meanwhile, saw Tuomo Ruutu and Erik Cole get injured in Game 1 and never fully recover. Plus, there were rather loud whispers that goalie Cam Ward was playing with an unannounced injury. Grueling seven-game series against New Jersey and Boston in the previous two rounds seemed to empty Carolina's tank before Round 3 even got under way.
Because they dressed a seventh defenseman, the Penguins dressed just 11 forwards in each game. But that alignment allowed Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma to construct a stunning fourth line, which featured Miroslav Satan and veteran Craig Adams
flanking Crosby, Malkin or Jordan Staal
. Needless to say, such a luxury proved very hard for Carolina coach Paul Maurice and his players to handle when it came to game planning and matchups on the ice. But it wasn't just a revamped fourth line. Malkin leads the League in playoff points, yet he is only the second-line center behind Crosby, who's tops in goals.Defense --
This isn't usually the first word that pops into the old cranium when you think about the run-and-gun Penguins, but Pittsburgh's defense might have been more important in this series than its top line. Eric Staal is Carolina's main threat and had earned the respect of everyone for almost singlehandedly dismantling the Devils and the Bruins. But he never got on track in the conference finals. Staal had one measly assist through three games and was minus-6 (he did score in Game 4). So how did Pittsburgh hold down the same Staal who had put up 9 goals and 13 points in Carolina's first 14 games? It boiled down to a steady dose of defensemen Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi hopping over the boards every time Staal stepped on the ice. Oh yeah, Eric Staal also saw a fair amount of Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal
, the Penguins' checking-line center and Eric's younger brother.
Star Power --
Nobody in the East could deny this Pittsburgh team if it got A-plus games out of its two superstars -- Crosby and Malkin -- and that's exactly what the two stars brought to the plate in the Eastern Conference Finals. Malkin was otherworldly, scoring 6 goals in the first three games -- including a dynamic Game 2 hat trick that turned the tide of that back-and-forth game permanently in Pittsburgh's favor. Crosby was all over the ice, contributing in every zone. Yet his production -- 2 goals and 3 assists in the first three games, plus a backbreaking assist in the second period of Game 4 -- was considered merely pedestrian when compared to Malkin's. By the same token, Carolina's top line didn't manage five points for the entire series. Yes, Pittsburgh's victory was the proverbial 20-man effort, but there was no denying that Crosby and Malkin were in the vanguard of the march to the Stanley Cup Final.