RALEIGH, N.C. – Playoff comebacks have been commonplace for Carolina, and for the Hurricanes to make the Eastern Conference final a series again, they’ll need their biggest one yet.
Stuck in a two-game hole for the first time this post-season, the Hurricanes are well aware that if they can’t get anything going on home ice – starting Saturday night with Game 3 – they’ll have no chance of sending their best-of-seven series with the Penguins back to Pittsburgh.
“You can’t get too much further back” against the wall, captain Rod Brind’Amour quipped Friday. “We’re getting pretty close here, so we’re going to have to fight back. We’re going to have to put up our best effort and leave it out there. It’s definitely not a feeling of, ‘We’re out of it,’ or anything like that. We fought back all year. Whenever we’ve had to come up with a big game, we have. Obviously, this is that time again.”
Indeed, they’ve grown used to desperate hockey during the past few weeks on Tobacco Road. Carolina needed two goals in the final 80 seconds of its first-round series to rally past New Jersey, then frittered away a 3-1 series lead in Round 2 against Boston before Scott Walker’s overtime goal in Game 7 took care of the Bruins and cemented their “Cardiac ‘Canes” nickname.
But they’ve also yet to face a situation quite like this: Down two games to the East’s defending champion, with two of the world’s best players dictating a rapid-fire pace that Carolina is having trouble matching while threatening to completely take over the series.
Stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have combined for nine points through two games. Malkin’s four-point performance in Game 2 was his first career playoff hat trick, including a spectacular no-look backhander for a goal that Crosby said was “a tough one to top.”
“All (Malkin) needs is a little space, and he puts it in the net,” said Carolina’s top defenceman, Tim Gleason. “He’s a heck of a hockey player, but at the same time, we can control him. He’s not God, I guess you could say. We just have to do a better job of shutting him down and taking his time and space away.”
Then again, if the start of this series looks familiar to the Penguins, perhaps it should.
They opened their second-round series against the Capitals by losing the first two in Washington, then bounced back to win four of five and claim their second straight berth in the Eastern Conference finals.
“We’ve tried to have resiliency and not quit,” Crosby said. “That’s what the playoffs are all about. You’re not going to have success unless you’re constantly driving and battling. You can’t give up. Both teams wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have that. We take a lot of pride in that, but we’ve got a team right now with the same type of attitude.”
But not the same level of production from their biggest stars – at least, not yet in this series.
Goalie Cam Ward, the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner who backstopped Carolina’s only previous Stanley Cup winner, is giving up an average of nearly five goals in this series after holding the Devils and Bruins to 2.2 goals per game. All-star centre Eric Staal has gone five games without a goal and his only point in the East finals came when he assisted on the Hurricanes’ first goal in Game 2.
Of course, the Hurricanes can neither score nor shoot if they don’t have the puck. And with so much of the series being played in front of Ward, it’s no surprise that the Penguins have controlled the stat sheet. Pittsburgh is outshooting Carolina 73-53 through two games.
“It’s pretty hard to shoot the puck from our zone,” forward Ray Whitney said.
Not surprisingly, that’s helped the Penguins spend much of the past two games playing with a lead.
Their quick-strike scheme produced the opening goals in both games and is a major reason why they’ve trailed for just 11 minutes in the series. The Hurricanes took their only lead midway through the first period of Game 2, and it vanished in the opening minutes of the second.
“There’s going to be high emotional swings, road buildings, momentum, difficult calls, shifts in momentum with the goals. … I think our team has a mentality and tried to maintain the mentality that, no matter what happens, we’re going to play the same way,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “We believe in the way we play, we know how to play that way, we know how to execute that way, and we just need to keep doing it over and over again, regardless of the situation.”
If the Penguins keep that up, and if the Hurricanes can’t find a way to counter in front of what promises to be rowdy home crowd – where they are 4-2 this post-season – the series could end before its shift back to Pittsburgh next week for Game 5.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what’s going on – it’s all about results,” Brind’Amour said. “We know that we didn’t play our best games, and we’re going to have to play our best games this time of year to win. We’ve had some breakdowns at our end, and they’re just too good. They’ve got too much talent – you give them those opportunities, they’re going to bury them. We’re just going to have to be better.”