Raleigh NC — The Carolina Hurricanes have knocked off two teams in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup and they have two to go. In two series they have not had home-ice advantage. In two series they have had to knock off division champions. In two series, the number 6 seeded team has finished off the number 3 and number 1 seeded team. It took dramatic game 7 wins in both series in front of hostile crowds, but they did it.
Now they head to the Conference Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the “experts” are almost unanimously picking Pittsburgh to win the series. In the first round matchup against the New Jersey Devils, the same experts were split as to who would win. Sure the Devils would have home ice and had the all time winningest goalie between the pipes with Martin Brodeur, but Carolina had beaten them several times down the stretch heading into the playoffs.
A sensible person would have noticed at as the regular season waned, the Hurricanes were getting stronger while the Devils were slipping a bit. The Devils struggled after Brodeur passed Patrick Roy as the all time winningest goalie, finishing their last 10 games with a 4-5-1 record. The Canes on the other hand after bringing Erik Cole back at the trade deadline had turned into a machine and finished their last 10 games 8-2-0.
The first round was close. It was intense and it took some heroics that can only be describe as “Magic” to win, including a goal scored with 0.2 seconds left and a game tying and game winning goal in the final two minutes of another game. So with these unbelievable, story-book, magical miracles its easy to get into the mind set that its a “Fluke” that Carolina advanced.
Next up was the number one seeded Boston Bruins. They had the second best record in the NHL with 116 points, a full 10 points ahead of the Devils and 19 points ahead of Carolina. They pitched the best goalie in the league, an incredibly good and physical defense and had a host of forwards that put up a conference best 274 goals over 82 games. They lost 6 games at home all season. Needless to say betting the Bruins in Boston was a hard task.
Most of the media experts gave this one to Boston. Only a couple of ESPN analysts called this one for Carolina. The Hurricanes had not won against the Bruins all year and the Bruins had a fairly easy first round against Montreal with a four game sweep.
On paper, there is no way Carolina should have won this series, but they did, charging out to a commanding 3-1 series lead before the Bruins clawed back to force a game 7 which Carolina again won with another fantasy like over time winner.
So we not sit on the cusp of the Conference finals. Again, Carolina would not have home ice, but what is surprising is that almost everyone is giving this series to Pittsburgh before it even starts.
Lets look at this.
- Sidney Crosby — clearly one of the two best players in the league. He is the star the league needs to show off and shine. He is the face of the NHL and in the series with Washington where he was going mano-a-mano against the other super-star, Alexander Ovechkin, the league and the TV channels got what they want, including a game where both stars had hat-tricks against each other.
- The Penguins have another super-star in Evgeni Malkin. He’s dangerous and gives the Pens a great 1-2 punch.
- On the backside, they have a strong goalie in Marc-André Fleury and a solid defense. They’ve proved they are formidable knocking off the Flyers and Capitals.
So again looking at that, how can a team beat the Penguins?
Before we answer that, lets look at a few facts.
Final Point totals: Penguins 99, Canes 97. Both teams won the same number of games, the difference was two more overtime loses for Pittsburgh.
Head to Head: Penguins 2, Canes 2. Pittsburgh took the first two games, winning 4-1 and 5-2. Carolina took the last two 2-1 and 3-2 in overtime. The Hurricanes, for historical perspective struggled early in the year and changed coaches, turning the team around. The Penguins second win was on Paul Maurice’s debut as the new coach. It wasn’t long after that when Carolina turned its season around.
So based on those facts, one should expect this series to be very close, probably going a full 7 games. But Carolina has a few good things going for it.
- Cam Ward. While the Penguin’s Marc-André Fleury is a good goaltender, Cam Ward continues to show he knows how to netmind the big games. He has kept Carolina in many of these games allowing magic to work for them. Maybe its not so much magic as quality goaltending. Three years ago, Ward won the Conn Smythe as the playoff MVP when Carolina bested Edmonton in route to their first Stanley Cup. While its early, if he continues this play, he would have to be in contention to win it again. The goalie edge had to go to Carolina and your team is built out from there.
- Solid Defense. For the most part, even after two grueling seven game series, the Carolina defensive core is healthy and they contribute offensively. The Penguin’s defense is a little banged up with Sergei Gonchar’s sore knee. With Maurice’s defensive mentality, Carolina should have a slight edge defensively.
- Lack of star’s up front. Huh? You serious? This is an advantage? Yes it is. Teams have no idea which Carolina forward is going to burn you. You can’t cheat away from any given player because they can all create problems for a teams defense. Yes, you have Eric Staal and many people will be watching the matchup between him and his brother, Jordan on the Penguins, who is playing his best right now, and Sergei Samsonov and Jussi Jokinen have provided most of the offense in the playoffs so far, all four lines can score and have scored. Instead of the goals being clustered around a couple of key players, a well balanced team will create defensive problems that are hard to counter.
So with this, how can all seven ESPN analysts (and this link), two experts from the Sporting News, and many others unanimously give this to Pittsburgh? Sure I’m a Canes fan, but this is too close to call. Surely one of the above experts would have sided with Carolina.
Now I fully understand that Versus and NBC clearly do not want Carolina to advance. The Raleigh-Durham’s tens of thousands of fans means economic disaster for TV. While Pittsburgh’s market is a little larger, they do have Crosby and Malkin which are huge stars. Clearly a Boston / Red Wings or even Boston / Chicago final would have made the TV folks happy. Its been obvious all year given that NBC pretty much only shows Ranger games. And conspiracy theorists will point out the large number of wrong/bad calls going against Carolina as evidence that TV is putting pressure on the NHL to keep the small market teams out of the late rounds of the playoffs.
Well Carolina is probably faster than Pittsburgh and is healthy and playing some of the best hockey as witnessed by their dispatching of Boston.
Why can’t at least one of these goon’s picked Carolina? Well it will be fun to watch them when they are all wrong.