On an exceptionally warm Saturday night in Raleigh, NC, hockey fans from both near and far descended upon the RBC center to have some fun and to watch Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Making the 4+ hour trip down from northern Virginia, I was pleased to see the tailgate parties in full swing when I arrived 3-hours ahead of the puck drop. The air was filled with the smell of brats, burgers and beer, as a live band played outside of the Arena entrance. It was definitely a party atmosphere, and the overwhelmingly hospitable locals welcomed the hoards of Penguins fans who opted to spend their holiday weekend supporting their team’s quest for the Stanley Cup. It was the perfect prelude to a pivotal game. For the Hurricanes…..a “must win” and a chance to climb back into the series. For the Penguins…..the opportunity to put the Canes in a seemingly unrecoverable hole.
Once inside the Arena, the excitement was palpable. A sea of red enveloped the majority of the Arena as the Canes’ faithful showed their colors in support of the home team and twirled complimentary white towels in the air. Amidst the steady roar of the crowd and the undeniable sound of cowbells, you could occassionally hear “Let’s Go Canes” chants interspersed with an equally enthusiastic and clearly audible “Let’s Go Pens” retort. While certainly the minority, large throngs of Penguins fans were in attendance and wanted to be heard and seen. Many showed up with homemade signs in tow and Penguins paraphernalia clutched in their hands to show their support for the team. Of course, there were many obligatory “Let’s Go Pens!” signs. Others were more original, like the sign that read “Hurricane ‘Geno!”. Another claimed “Welcome to Evgeni-Stan!”, an incredibly appropriate and humorous welcome given his absolute domination of the Hurricanes in this series. My favorite sign, however, was clutched in the hands of a proud young boy that bore the logo of The Weather Channel, and read “Forecast: Hurricane Season Over!!” That sentiment, almost poetic, seemed more prophetic by games’ end after the Penguins once again dominated the beleaguered Canes into a 6-2 submission. Indeed, the Canes’ season is perilously close to being over.
As the game got underway, it seemed that we might see a different opponent than we saw in Game 2. The Canes showed some early jump and determination in their play that paid off at 4:06 as Matt Cullen feasted on a centering pass from behind the net to put his team ahead 1-0. But the momentum was short-lived as the Canes got into penalty trouble with a slashing call on Patrick Eaves just 2-minutes later. Evgeni Malkin took the powerplay opportunity to once again out-maneuver Canes’ defenseman Tim Gleason and quickly walk in on net to beat Cam Ward and tie it up 1-1. The Penguins then proceeded to take full advantage of a remarkably weak Canes’ defensive effort to pepper Cam Ward with a total of 16-shots in the period. The offensive push of the Penguins paid off in the final minute of the period as both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin scored goals 31-seconds apart before heading into the locker room. Crosby’s goal was a perfect net-side backhand deflection off from the rush on a beautiful sideboard pass by Bill Guerin. Malkin followed up quickly with another devastating blow as he walked the puck uncontested from the sideboards to the front of the net to beat Cam Ward and make it 3-1. And with that goal late in the period, the oxygen was taken completely out of the building.
The Penguins once again dominated in the second period, outshooting the Canes 15-8. Despite the onslaught, Cam Ward was able to keep his team within striking distance as he managed to stop a couple of incredible chances by Max Talbot. For his part, Marc-Andre Fleury continued to be brilliant when he needed to be, despite the gaps in action at his end of the ice.
Early in the 3rd, it looked as though the Canes might regain some life as Sergei Samsonov picked up a rebound and fired it past Fleury to make it 3-2 with over 18-minutes to go in the game. The Penguins refused to give up any additional ground, however, as they re-established a 2-goal lead with a little over 8-minutes left in the game off from the stick of Ruslan Fedotenko. Picking up a beautiful drop pass from Evgeni Malkin near the top of the circles, Fedotenko was left alone to fire a wrister high on the glove side that eluded Cam Ward to make it 4-2 Penguins. Then, with less than 2-minutes to go and Cam Ward on the bench for the extra attacker, Craig Adams faceoff win whooshed down the ice and into the empty net for an unassisted insurance goal. Then adding insult to injury just 40-seconds later, Bill Guerin collected a pass from Ruslan Fedotenko and placed a perfect backhander past Cam Ward to finish the scoring 6-2. There was a brief scare near the end of the period when Evgeni Malkin put a tremendous hit on a Canes player only to have a skate blade brush up against the side of his face. Ultimately, it appeared that there was no cut, but Malkin looked unsure as he skated to the bench to be checked out. Jordan Staal also took a shot to the head that laid him out on the ice for a brief moment, but he was back out again next shift sporting a nostril plug for his troubles.
The Penguins are now just one win away from a return visit to the Stanley Cup Finals, an outcome that seemed unimaginable at the beginning of February. With a renewed focus, inspired coaching, world class talent, a ton of heart, determination, and confidence, the Pittsburgh Penguins could do what few teams have managed to do throughout hockey history by reaching the Stanley Cup Finals the season after losing it. Along the way, we have seen Pittsburgh’s stars shine brightly. Sidney Crosby has been on a blistering goal scoring pace and leads the league with 14-playoff goals. He is just 5 goals shy of the NHL playoff record for most goals within one playoff season, a record held by Philadelphia’s Reggie Leach in 1976 and Edmonton’s Jari Kurri in 1985. Evgeni Malkin picked up his sixth consecutive multi-point game of the postseason and surpassed Mario Lemieux in the Penguins’ record books. He is just two shy of tying the all-time NHL leader, Wayne Gretzky, whose streak ran to eight games in 1983.
Being at the game, I couldn’t help but feel like a witness to hockey history in the making. It is hard to deny that the current Pittsburgh Penguins team, comprised of a very youthful core of world-class talent, is destined for greatness for the foreseeable future. As much as I am a fan of the Penguins, I am a fan of hockey first and foremost. While it is great to see one’s team excel and win, it is even more rewarding to see the world’s greatest players performing at the top of their game. As Pittsburgh fans, we have been doubly blessed. Not only do we get to see two of the world’s best players, we get to see them lead our team to greatness. It certainly is a great day for hockey!