A Tale of Two Teams – The Series Ahead

A Tale of Two Teams
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes will face off against each other on Monday night when the puck drops for game one of the Eastern Conference Finals at Mellon Arena.  Seemingly implausible just two months ago, both teams recovered from mediocre performance earlier in the season and found momentum to surge late and claw their way back into playoff position while playing under the direction of a new coaching staff and an up-tempo, aggressive style of play.  The Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes became the two hottest teams in the league at the end of the regular season with the Penguins going 18-3-4 in their last 25 games and the Hurricanes going 17-6-2.  The dramatic turnaround propelled the Penguins to a 4th place, home-ice berth and the Hurricanes to a 6th place finish in the regular season.  The tremendous momentum has carried over into the post-season and lifted each team through the first two rounds of these playoffs to set up a classic battle for the Eastern Conference title and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup. 

Carolina Hurricanes v Pittsburgh Penquins

The similarities between these teams in the regular season now continues on in the playoffs.  Both teams have overcome adversity and found success through the first two rounds of their playoff journey. 

The Canes Journey

The Carolina Hurricanes have battled hard through the first two rounds of the playoffs.  In the first round, the Hurricanes went the full distance and came back from a 3-2 series defecit to beat the #3 New Jersey Devils in 7-games.  They outscored the Devils 17-15 in the series, with goaltender Cam Ward pitching one shutout.  Two games went to overtime, with each team picking up a win.  The Hurricanes then took on the #1 Boston Bruins.  After losing the first game in Boston, the Hurricanes stormed on to win the next 3-games and put the Bruins on the ropes with the 3-1 series advantage.  The mighty Bruins battled back, however, and forced game 7.  Ultimately the Bruins took game 7 to overtime before the Hurricanes notched the deciding goal with just 1:14 left in the first overtime.  The Hurricanes were actually outcored 17-16 in the round 2 series by the Bruins.  Cam Ward pitched his second shutout of the playoffs in this series and the Canes found a way to win both overtime games against the Bruins.  The top performers for the Hurricanes have been Eric Staal (9G, 4A) and Jussi Jokinen (6G, 4A).  Sergei Samsonov has also been a factor on the scoresheet with 4-goals.  Captain Rod BrindAmour only has 2-points (1G, 1A) in the playoffs, and is a -1.  As a result, his ice time has been curtailed in these playoffs.  He took a puck to the face late in game 7 against the Bruins and never returned.  The extent of his injury is unknown, but reports out of Carolina indicate that he is hopeful to start in game 1 against the Penguins. 

The Pens Journey

The Pittsburgh Penguins have also had to battle throughout the first two rounds, standing in stark contrast to last season’s relatively quick walk through the playoffs.  In the first round, the Penguins faced their cross-state rivals in the Philadelphia Flyers.  The Penguins dispatched the #5 Flyers in 6-games, outscoring them 18-16 and winning the only overtime match.  The Penguins faced off against the #2 Washington Capitals in round 2 and took it the full distance to win the matchup in 7-games after falling behind 2-0 early in the series.  The Penguins outscored the Capitals in the series 27-22 and won 2 of the 3 games that went to overtime.  The top performers for the Penguins have been Sidney Crosby (12G, 9A) and Evgeni Malkin (6G, 13A).  The two are #1 and #3 in the league in playoff points.  Penguins star defenseman Sergei Gonchar missed games 5 and 6 after leaving game 4 with a knee injury sustained in a hit by Alexander Ovechkin, but returned in Game 7.  With 10-points (2G, 8A), Gonchar is the 3rd most prolific scorer for the Penguins in these playoffs. 

The Series Ahead

Following on the heels of the Penguins-Capitals and Bruins-Hurricanes series, this series promises to be every bit as exciting.  Both teams are extremely fast and play an aggressive style of hockey.  “You’re going to see fast hockey,” said Sidney Crosby. “Their D is in the play, they’re quick up front, they attack, they don’t sit back. I think that’s similar to the way we like to play as well.”  The Hurricanes’ strength, much like the Penguins, is their ability to excel in this style of fast up-and-down game.  The key for each team will be to find ways to counter that strength and stifle the speed of the opposition attack by forcing them to play in their own defensive zone.  “You don’t want to get caught up thinking it’s going to be odd-man rushes back and forth,” Crosby said.  “We want to work hard.  We want to work smart.  That’s going to be resolved by the two teams and the way they play but you’ll see fast hockey.”

Coach Dan Bylsma knows what his team has to do to be successful.  “In order to counteract a team that is aggressive and wants to play a speed game and has some skill up front, the longer you can force them to play in the defensive zone the slower it makes their game and harder for their D to get involved and be up the ice.  That’s our game – getting to the offensive zone with speed.  When we’re playing our best we are keeping teams in their defensive zone and holding onto the puck, dictating the game by playing in their zone.  That’s the way we need to play to have success.  That’s the way we want to play.  We don’t want a game that goes up and down the ice at electric speed.  We can play that way, we have the personnel to play that way.  We want to play that offensive zone game and when we’re not there we want to attack, get the puck and return there as quickly as we can.”  You can rest assured that Paul Maurice, with 11 more seasons of NHL coaching experience than Dan Bylsma, is drafting similar plans on how to stop the explosive offense of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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