Maybe Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Ward just got tired about all the Crosby-Malkin-Staal-Staal talk.
Because while the stars turned out for Game 1 between Pittsburgh and Carolina, it was the goaltenders for the Penguins and Hurricanes who stole the show.
And, since Pittsburgh outlasted Carolina 3-2 in an entertaining, scoring chance-exchanging affair, give Fleury the slight edge over Ward. But call it a split decision, because the Canes netminder – as he has throughout the ’09 post-season (and like he did in ’06) – kept Carolina in the game with several head-scratching saves. The one you’ll probably see on the highlights is the glove save off Bill Guerin in the slot (pass from Sidney Crosby) that would’ve made it 3-0 for Pittsburgh midway through the second period. Certainly, the game would’ve had a much different complexion had that one-timer gone in, but it was just one of many timely stops by Ward. (A small sampling: he denied Crosby a couple times in the third when it was still 2-1; he stopped Tyler Kennedy all night – the pesky Pens center tied Evgeni Malkin with a game-high six shots; he blocked a Kris Letang shot from the slot during Pittsburgh’s first power play when it was 0-0 early in the first; and he turned aside a hard-charging Miroslav Satan late in the first.)
Not to be outdone, Fleury victimized Chad LaRose, Jussi Jokinen and Eric Staal, among others, and made a couple interesting stops in the final 30 seconds to preserve the victory. The Penguins goalie, who added a few glove saves to his personal highlight reel, denied Eric Staal when the puck hit the Canes center at the side of the net and bounced into the crease with 30 seconds left (Fleury blindly fell on the puck and froze it for a whistle), and flopped down 10 seconds later to stop a 120-foot bouncer. Fleury was rock-solid early when the game was up in the air and had good positioning and rebound control all night. He came out and challenged the Canes forwards and appeared comfortable in his crease – looking very much like a goalie in a playoff groove.
As does Ward, too, of course, but Game 1 turned when the Carolina netminder failed to stop Satan, coming out of the penalty box on a breakaway and Malkin, on a stick-side backhander, 84 seconds apart midway through the opening frame. Staked to a 2-0 advantage, the Penguins assumed control and fended off any Carolina offensives. The Hurricanes battled back in the second period, scaring Pittsburgh with LaRose’s marker at 13:04, but Philippe Boucher’s power play goal at 11:33 of the third (pass from Crosby) made it 3-1 and put the Pens back in charge. Joe Corvo’s late power play goal made the final minute interesting, but Pittsburgh’s forechecking, goaltending and opportunistic scoring proved too much. The Penguins gave up the puck too many times in their own zone – and also had problems with defensive-zone coverage – to get too confident, but they had to like what they got from their starting goalie.
Carolina should like what they got from Ward, too, but a win always makes a playoff game much more memorable.
1. STAAL VS. STAAL
Last season, Jordan’s Penguins knocked off older brother Marc’s Rangers in the second round. This time, he’s hoping to get eldest brother Eric’s Hurricanes out of the way in the conference final. The brothers took the opening faceoff – won by Jordan – and another Staal-stuffed playoff game began. Eric, skating between Ray Whitney and Scott Walker tried to keep busy and had a handful of notable shifts. But Jordan, centering Kennedy and grinder Matt Cooke, was more noticeable and more effective, using his size and reach and working the boards with his linemates to keep the pressure on in the offensive zone. Neither brother registered a point.
2. CROSBY AND MALKIN
Pittsburgh’s star power didn’t disappoint. Crosby was generous with linemates Guerin and Chris Kunitz, but it wasn’t until defenseman Boucher’s shot went in midway through the third that Crosby picked up a point (and took over the NHL playoff scoring lead, with 22 points). A couple inches here, a couple inches there and Crosby has another two-goal, four-point night. Instead, Ward was almost always there and it was a one-assist evening for the Penguins captain. Malkin’s goal, with the arena still abuzz after Satan’s first-blood marker barely more than a minute before, was a laser of a low backhander, just over Ward’s right pad and under the blocker. It was a pure skill shot, Malkin’s seventh of the post-season (Boucher and Satan scored their first of the ’09 playoffs).
3. ORPIK VS. COLE
If you’ll recall, Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik broke some vertebrae in Erik Cole’s neck with a hit from behind in 2006. Cole returned to play Games 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup final, but has never been quite the same aggressive, offensively capable player. Orpik apologized to Cole in the months afterwards, but Cole never really accepted it and the two have feuded and fought ever since. Game 1 was no exception, with both players unloading on each other with hard bodychecks, a couple times and then some. They girded for space in front of Ward, too, and it was shaping up like a series-defining battle until Cooke ran into Cole with a knee-on-knee collision early in the third. Cole played very sparingly after the hit and was favoring his left knee when he left the ice. Tuomo Ruutu left the game in the first period – looked like a right knee, if you’re keeping track – and Carolina can’t afford to lose another physical forward.
4. SERGEI GONCHAR
The veteran Penguins defenseman – so pivotal to Pittsburgh’s power play – taped up what’s left of his right knee and dressed for the game, one of seven Pens D-men to do so. After a shaky start – Gonchar had a few giveaways on two early power plays (and was easily pushed off the puck all night) – he ended up leading Pittsburgh in ice time (21:42). Of course, that includes 7:12 of power play time – not bad, considering Carolina only had eight minutes in penalties.
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