The Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes each made coaching changes during the regular season and both teams ended the regular season as the two hottest teams in the Eastern Conference. It should not come as any surprise that these two teams are meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The two teams split the regular season 2-2 and on April 4th had a thrilling up and down game that resulted in a 3-2 Hurricanes win in overtime.
PIT: Sidney Crosby (21pts), Evgeni Malkin (19 pts)
CAR: Eric Staal (13 pts), Cam Ward (8-6, 2.22 GAA, .927 sv%)
Advantage – Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh – Forwards
Down the middle, the Penguins boast the top 1-2 combo in the league with super stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Sidney Crosby is playing his best hockey of his career, leading all playoff scorers with 21 points in 13 games and has established himself as the games top player in the eyes of many NHL pudits.
After drawing some criticism during the games 1 & 2 of the Capitals series, Evgeni Malkin quietly had 10 points in the series to give him 19 pts through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Crosby, Malkin have combined for 40 points in the playoffs.
The wildcard of the group is Jordan Staal. When Staal plays at the level he did against Philadelphia in the early part of the 1st round series, the Penguins are a nightmare to matchup against. Inconsistency has plagued Staal (2g-3a-5pts) throughout the playoffs but if the Penguins get a strong performance from Staal over the course of the series, it’s going to be a quick series in the Penguins favor.
Craig Adams will begin the series as the Penguins 4th line center if the Penguins opt to go with 12 forwards. Max Talbot who has been elevated to the second line, will also take draws in certain situations on Evgeni Malkin’s line and will see some time as the teams 4th line center.
Top 6 wingers
On the wings the Penguins are getting significant contribution from Bill Guerin on and off the ice. Guerin has established himself as a prominent voice in the locker room, and has provided Sidney Crosby space and a physical presence in front of the net on the top line.
Guerin (5g-4a-9pts) is not lighting the lamp at a Marian Hossa pace but he is Pittsburgh’s Hossa trade of 2009. He is having that much of an impact on this team.
Ruslan Fedotenko (4g-4a-8pts) is playing his best hockey of the season, scoring three goals in the Washington series. Fedotenko has added some scoring punch to Evgeni Malkin’s line and he’s got a shot that many scouts believe he should use more.
The elevation of Max Talbot to the second line has added some much needed grit. Talbot is the type of player who does well on the top two lines in short spurts. It remains to be seen whether he can provide the spark he did against Washington in the East Finals.
Chris Kunitz has 0 goals in 13 playoff games and only has 1 goal in his last 34 playoff games dating back to his time with the Anaheim Ducks. That is a major concern and the Penguins must get some production from Kunitz.
Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy had a strong series against the Philadelphia Flyers. Both players tailed off against Washington but picked up their play near the end of the season. Secondary scoring is the key to winning in the playoffs and the Penguins will look to Kennedy and Cooke to provide a timely goal or two.
Rounding out the Penguins 4th line will be Pascal Dupuis and Miroslav Satan. Dupuis has been a healthy scratch for the past three games as the Penguins have dressed 7 defensemen. Miroslav Satan is playing with confidence for the first time all season and he could be a difference maker in the series.
Playing in a 4th line role, Satan recorded 4 assists in the Washington series and as the coaching staff is gaining more confidence in Satan, look for Satan to get some shifts with the top two lines in certain situations. Satan has made the most of his opportunity and will also see some power play time on the second power play unit.
Carolina – Forwards
Eric Staal (9g-4a-13pts) is one of the best kept secrets in hockey. At times he can be dominant force at both ends of the ice with his size and strength. Staal does not have another superstar by his side like the Penguins have with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin but the Hurricanes forwards are a hardworking group.
Staal will begin the series on a line with Ray Whitney (3g-6a-9pts) and Scott Walker (1g-4a-5pts). Whitney is a shifty player who has had success against the Penguins in the past and adds speed and some scoring touch on Staal’s wing. Scott Walker provides grit and a physical presence on the Canes 1st line. There is nothing flashy about this group but they cycle the puck well and drive to the net where they create a lot of scoring chances.
Head coach Paul Maurice decided to split up the Eric Staal – Eric Cole – Tuomo Ruutu line during the playoffs to balance out their 2nd and 3rd lines. The move has added more depth to the Hurricanes lineup but the move has not resulted in Cole and Ruutu producing offensively.
Eric Cole (0g-2a-2pts, -4) is having a disappointing playoff run and for the Hurricanes to upset the Penguins they need Cole to have a big series. Cole will begin the series on a line with Matt Cullen and Chad Larose.
Tuomo Ruutu has been a force for the Hurricanes, causing havoc on the fore-check and he will be a pest in this series. Just like Cole though, the Hurricanes will need more production from Ruutu (1g-3a-4pts) who scored 26 goals during the regular season, if they want to advance to the Cup Finals
Two wildcards in this series will be Jussi Jokinen (6g-4a-10pts) and Chad Larose (2g-7a-9pts). Jokinen has been a dynamic player in the playoffs and has added some much needed scoring punch to the Hurricanes third line. Larose provides speed and grit to the Canes second line. Both forwards will be key players to the Hurricanes success.
Sergei Samsonov (4g-2a-6pts) provides the Hurricanes another speed winger who has offensive capabilities. Samsonov will begin the series on a line with Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen to give the Hurricanes a well rounded third line.
At age 38, Rod Brind’Amour is not the player he use to be but he is the Canes leader in the locker room and remains one of the games top penalty killers and is a stalwart on draws. Brind’Amour will begin the series in the 4th line role.
Advantage – Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh – Defensemen
The Penguins will get a much needed boost in game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals as Sergei Gonchar (2g-8a-10pts) is much healthier than he was during game 7 of the Semi-Finals. Gonchar went through a full practice on Sunday and is nearing full health.
Gonchar and defenseman Brook Orpik give the Penguins a #1 pairing, something the Carolina Hurricanes don’t have. Orpik leads the Penguins with 60 hits in the playoffs.
The advantage Pittsburgh has over Carolina when comparing each teams defensive corps is the scoring the Penguins get from their backend. In the playoffs, the Penguins have got 10 goals from their defensemen .
The pairing of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi will get the primary duty of shutting down Eric Staal. Shutting down Staal will be a much easier task than shutting down Alexander Ovechkin who scored 8 goals – 6 assists – 14 points in seven games against Pittsburgh.
Defenseman Mark Eaton has elevated his play since the Penguins moved to an aggressive up-tempo system. This is the kind of system Eaton played in Nashville and the Penguins have not only gotten strong defensive play from Eaton, he has also scored four goals in the playoffs and has flourished jumping up in the play.
The wildcard for the Penguins on defense will be Kris Letang. Letang has two goals in his last three games and is gaining confidence in his offensive ability. Still, Letang has been very inconsistent in the playoffs.
Defenseman Philippe Boucher provides the Penguins defensive depth and could see some time in the East Finals.
Carolina – Defense
The Carolina Hurricanes lack a shutdown defenseman which may haunt them in this series but you won’t hear anyone inside the Hurricanes organization admit that as the Hurricanes believe their defensive group is a strength of the team.
Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo will get the primary duty of slowing down Sidney Crosby. Corvo is a puck-moving defenseman while Gleason is a stay at home defenseman. They play off of each other very well and have the speed to matchup against the Penguins top unit. Where Crosby and the Penguins will look to exploit them is down low in the offensive zone.
Puck-moving defenseman Joni Pitkanen (7 assists) fuels the Hurricanes transition game and he is often paired with the Hurricanes top two lines. Like Mike Green, Pitkanen doesn’t like to play defense and the Penguins will look to neutralize Pitkanen like they did with Green.
Dennis Seidenberg , Frantisek Kaberle and Anton Babchuk round out the Hurricanes top 6. Seidenberg is a strong defensive – defenseman who excels on the penalty kill and will be a factor in this series. Frantisek Kaberle adds a veteran presence who returned to the lineup in game 7 of the Semi Finals after being injured for much of the series.
Anton Babchuk will be the Hurricanes wildcard on defense. Babchuck scored 16 goals during the regular season, but has been held scoreless in the playoffs.
Advantage – Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh – Goaltending
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc Andre Fleury (8-5, 2.72 GAA, .901 sv%) comes into the Eastern Conference as having mixed opinions on his performance in the 2009 playoffs. Fleury was phenomenal against the Flyers but took a minor step back against Washington.
Despite inconsistent play against the Capitals through the first six games, Fleury made a game changing save in the first period of game 7, making a beautiful glove save on a Alexander Ovechkin breakaway. The save changed the momentum in game 7 and the result was a 6-2 win for the Penguins.
The Penguins need more consistency from Fleury but he has proven to show up in big games. The Penguins expect a stronger performance from Fleury in the East Finals than he had in the Semi’s. The major question mark for Pittsburgh will be whether Fleury can play even with Cam Ward?
Carolina – Goaltending
One area where the Hurricanes have an advantage over the Penguins is goaltending. Cam Ward is a Stanley Cup winning goaltender and the Hurricanes hopes of upsetting the Penguins will rest on the shoulders of Ward.
Ward is athletic and is the most sound goalie in the game. After two subpar seasons, he is playing at a higher level than he did during the 2006 season when Ward led the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup Championship, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Ward has won six straight playoff series and is 4-0 in game 7’s. There might not be another goaltender in the league that a GM would want in a game 7 situation.
Advantage – Carolina
The NHL is not getting the sexy matchup that it would have got if the Bruins would have prevailed against Carolina but the NHL is getting the two best teams in the East Finals.
Carolina and Pittsburgh like to play an aggressive uptempo-style and fans are going to see some exciting action. The Hurricanes do not want to get into a shootout with Pittsburgh but that won’t stop their aggressive approach.
Special teams will play a strong factor in this series. Pittsburgh’s power play is starting to come around and the Penguins were 9-for-34 on the man advantage against Washington.
Carolina on the other hand has been dominate on the penalty kill in the playoffs. Carolina is 49-for-54 on the PK as they have adopted an aggressive forecheck.
Carolina which doesn’t matchup well against Pittsburgh 5-on-5 will need to win the special teams game.
For Pittsburgh, they believe they can exploit the Hurricanes blueline. The Hurricanes are more mobile than Washington was but Pittsburgh should be able to manage 35+ shots a game. Cam Ward will have to be dominate in this series.
The Penguins are a determined group right now and they have their sights set on another trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Too many things have to go right for the Canes to upend the Penguins.
Series Prediction : Pittsburgh in 5