The Eastern Conference Finals feature two very different teams. Pittsburgh has been the main event throughout the playoffs, matching up with Philadelphia and Washington in two high-profile series.
On the other hand, Carolina has very much been the undercard all spring. Their first round matchup against New Jersey was watched by about 11 people and wasn’t featured on national television at all. Next up was Boston, who everyone handed the series to until Thursday night around midnight.
What that leaves us with is one team who is once again expected to win, and a Hurricanes team that truly can claim “no one believed in us!” It would be easy to just say that Pittsburgh should and will move on to face Detroit again, but that’s not a very interesting post.
What Carolina has is a goaltender routinely standing on his head. Carolina climbed the standings earlier in the season thanks to Cam Ward playing his face off, which explains why I never know what he actually looks like. He played almost 30 straight games to close out the season, and he’s been lights out throughout the post season this year.
The effect of a hot goaltender in the post season is downright spectacular. Sabres fans remember how easy it felt when Hasek was on his game, and he made some Sabres teams with mid-range talent look very, very good. In a series like this, Ward’s play will make up for a lack of star power in the Hurricanes’ roster, and Eric Staal will continue to be called upon to carry the load for Carolina.
With all that said, I don’t think it will be enough. Marc Andre Fleury had a rough series against Washington, but he’s not facing a unique scoring threat like Alexander Ovechkin this time around. Cam Ward is, and Sidney Crosby has been great all spring. I don’t see him slowing down, and I don’t see production from the second and third lines slowing, either.
Pittsburgh may not have Hossa this year, but so far Crosby has done the job even with Malkin going AWOL for all but one game. If Malkin can get it together, the Penguins can be a scary, scary team.
The experience gained last year is evident in their ability to show up when it really matters. What was so impressive about their Game Seven win was that they jumped on Washington before the Caps and their crowd had the chance to jump on them.
The Penguins get the chance to jump on Carolina with the first two at home. After what they saw in Washington last round and Detroit last year, I don’t think Ward and a few hurricane sirens are going to scare them.
Pittsburgh in Six.