RALEIGH, N.C. – Maybe the toughest part of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ recent dominance has been making it look so easy.
Wins in the Eastern Conference finals are coming as quickly as their goals. Twice in Game 3 they scored a pair of goals seconds apart. That quick-strike ability has produced a flurry of victories that has put Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co. on the verge of sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes and returning to the Stanley Cup finals for the second straight year.
The East’s defending champions have no interest in allowing the Hurricanes to crawl back into this lopsided series. Instead, they’re looking to move on, well, quickly.
“We know the series is 3-0. We know this (Carolina) team’s not going to quit – that’s their trademark,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Sunday. “They’ve proven that, even in the games that have ended up with lots of goals on the board. … While we have a lead, we know we need to get one more win to get this thing done with. Right now is better than waiting.”
With the best-of-seven series set to resume Tuesday night, it seems as though the Penguins will soon be making travel plans for Detroit or Chicago with the Stanley Cup on the line.
Pittsburgh has trailed for fewer than 14 minutes through three games. The Penguins’ underrated defence has turned Carolina’s top scoring threats into nonfactors. In those rare instances when shots got through, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been steady in allowing 2.7 goals per game.
But nothing has helped them take command of the series quite like the continued emergence of the one-two punch of young, world-class players.
Crosby, who had a goal and an assist in Game 3, has scored twice and registered five points in three games. Pittsburgh has combine for 13 goals in two games. Even more impressively, Malkin followed his first career playoff hat trick in Game 2 by nearly doing it again, finishing with two goals and an assist in the third game. He has six goals and nine points in the series.
“Regardless of the matchup, Malkin’s found a way to score against every line,” Carolina coach Paul Maurice said.
And with very little time ticking off the clock.
The Penguins have succeeded in effortless fashion at times during their current four-game winning streak. The Hurricanes have struggled to keep up even as Bylsma insisted after Saturday night’s 6-2 rout that “it doesn’t feel easy.”
During the stretch that started with Game 7 against Washington, the Penguins have shown an ability to demoralize teams by following one goal with another:
-Crosby and Craig Adams had goals eight seconds apart to start the scoring against the Capitals. Bill Guerin and Kris Letang scored in a 1:44 span of the second period to stretch the lead to 4-0.
-Miroslav Satan and Malkin scored 1:24 apart in Game 1, won by the Penguins 3-2.
-Crosby and Malkin scored 31 seconds apart in the final minute of the first period in Saturday’s Game 3 to turn a 1-1 tie into a two-goal lead. Adams and Guerin added insurance goals 40 seconds apart in the final two minutes.
“It’s not going to be like that every night. We’ve been able to execute and do a good job,” Crosby said after Game 3. “We just need to focus on doing what we need to do. We have great momentum, and hopefully we get rewarded for that. If not, the next line will do the same thing.
“It’s just confidence, and everybody going out there and doing their job,” he added. “Maybe it takes less pressure off one another in order to go out there and do that. … Everyone’s playing the way they are, and we’re rolling lines, you don’t put as much pressure. We don’t force things. We’re patient and we execute when they get the chances.”
While the Penguins’ top players are scoring in bunches, the most prominent Hurricanes can’t seem to get anything going.
Top scoring threat Eric Staal has one assist in the series and no goals in six games; Carolina is 7-0 in the playoffs when he scores and 1-9 when he doesn’t. Top-line forward Ray Whitney hasn’t scored a goal since the first-round series against New Jersey, and key trade deadline reacquisition Erik Cole has no goals and four points in the playoffs.
No wonder the Hurricanes are serious long shots to become the third NHL team – and first since 1975 – to rally from a 3-0 deficit and win a series.
“Don’t view the whole picture,” Maurice said. “Just get a small glimpse. There’s some belief that we have to reclaim. We’ve got to win the next game, but there’s more to that next game for us – the chance to play again, and then the belief that would come with a win.”