The Keys to Round 3
So the Eastern Conference Championship match is set. Two teams winning Game 7s, both on the road. Now, the Carolina Hurricanes will travel to Pittsburgh for Game 1 against the Penguins.
There are a few stories here. Obviously, you have the Staal brothers, Jordan versus Eric. But this isn’t the only storyline, however. This matchup features the last East team to capture the Cup against the reigning Eastern Conference Champions. Also here are two of the NHL’s youngest and most talented goaltenders, Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Ward.
Both teams bring an up-tempo style to their game, emphasizing an aggressive forecheck and puck-possession game. The biggest difference may be the Penguins perennial stars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – Malkin the regular season points leader with 113, Crosby the post season leader in points (21) and goals (12). Carolina’s Eric Staal brings nine goals to this series, though his numbers seem a bit overshadowed by Pittsburgh’s dynamic duo.
So what do these two teams need to do to be successful? There are a few key factors for each team that could be the difference between a trip to the Cup Finals, and a trip to the golf course.
For the Hurricanes:
- Cam Ward – When you think of playoff goaltenders, Ward’s name has to be one that’s mentioned near the top. He created a lot of hype when, as a rookie, he joined the elite company of greats such as Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy by leading his team to the Stanley Cup in his first season. He also claimed the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff’s most valuable player.
The ‘Canes missed the last two post seasons, but they have certainly come back with force. They’ve outlasted Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils and the top-seeded Boston Bruins, claiming two straight Game 7 victories. Much of their success has been because Ward has stood tall in net. However, in the six Carolina losses, Ward was pedestrian. The Pens have scored more goals than any team left in the playoffs (they actually rank first overall), so Ward will have to be on his game every contest.
- The Top Scorers – Carolina has scored 33 goals in 14 games played. 15 of those goals have come from Eric Staal (9) and Jussi Jokinen (6). That’s nearly half of their scoring. And while secondary scoring is necessary to be successful, and the ‘Canes will need it as much as any team does, their best players will have to have an impact every game, especially Staal. When he scored at least one goal during the playoffs, Carolina is 7-0. Their Game 7 win over Boston was the first game they won where he didn’t get a tally.
There’s a considerable drop off in the scoring after Staal and Jokinen. They are the only players on their team with 10 or more points (though Ray Whitney and Chad LaRose are close with 9). There have been individual goals here and there from the other forwards, but no one has stepped up and been a major contributor on the score sheet. And their blue line has only scored two goals. For the ‘Canes, it’s all about upfront, and they will have to be stellar to keep pace with the Pens.
- The penalty kill – What can you say about the ‘Canes PK except that it’s been dominant in these playoffs. They have the best PK remaining in the playoffs, running at 90.9 percent. They have only allowed five power play goals in 14 games, a staggering number to say the least.
The Penguins have suddenly found a rhythm on their power play, which is now running at 19.7 percent. Carolina will be more interested in staying disciplined, but Pittsburgh will word to draw calls. The ‘Canes will need their killers, who stifled a strong Boston power play to a 2 for 27 conversion, to keep the Pens power play quiet. Their own power play will match up against an underrated Pittsburgh penalty kill, the advantage swinging in Pittsburgh’s favor. The special teams battle will be truly defensive for Carolina in this series.
For the Penguins:
- The power play – The Pens are going up against the strongest PK left in the playoffs, but their power play seems to have found a bit of a stride. They went 9 for 34 against Washington (26.4 percent) and have at least one goal with the man advantage in six straight games. Three of those games saw the power play cash in twice.
This has not been a strength of the Pens down the stretch, but it has picked itself up considerably. There is better movement and far more quality chances on each opportunity. It will need to be strong to contend with Carolina and their penalty kill. The emergence of a possible second unit of Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz and Miroslav Satan, who look good in their limited time during the last round against Washington, could make it that much more potent (providing the unit is employed effectively).
- The blue line – Despite Alex Ovechkin’s eight goals and 14 points in previous seven games with Pittsburgh, the Penguins defense limited Ovechkin considerably. He had 21 shots and four goals in the first two games, but Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi solved the equation thereafter. In the final five games of the series, Ovechkin only managed 20 total shots, never totaling more than five in any of those games. He found the back of the net four times in those games as well. So while the numbers show that Ovechkin had a great series, he gradually became less of a factor as the games went on.
The ‘Canes don’t have a player with the scoring prowess of Ovechkin. Eric Staal has nine goals, though none in his last three games. He has played very well, using his size and his solid shot to lead his team thus far. But he certainly doesn’t bring the same challenges that Ovechkin’s speed and shot do. If the Pens defense limited Ovechkin, there’s no reason to think they can’t do the same to Staal. And similarly to Washington, the secondary scoring has not been a genuine factor. Carolina is talented, but the Pens’ underrated blue liners have the skill to make Carolina have to work for every chance.
Another point of interest to note is the Pens defense has scored 10 of the team’s 45 goals, with Mark Eaton leading defensemen with four. If the defense can continue to tickle the twine, it will be hard to defend the Pens knowing scoring could come from anywhere.
- The “Third” line – They weren’t a tremendous factor against the Capitals until the end of the series. However, Jordan Staal, battling his brother Eric for the first time in their playoff careers, found his scoring touch again. He had two goals against Washington, including one in Game 7. Matt Cooke also got his first goal of the campaign in Game 5. Tyler Kennedy had two goals against the Flyers in Round 1, but couldn’t find his touch in Round 2.
But the line began to generate chances and play a good puck-possession game later in the series. Satan also had success when playing alongside Staal and either Cooke or Kennedy, setting up both of Staal’s goals last round. The matchup of them against Carolina’s line would bit the brothers against one another. But more importantly, it would pit a shutdown energy line against the line which the ‘Canes need to be outstanding.
So that’s how it shapes up. The puck drops Monday at 7:30. The winner will be one step closer to a chance to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup.