Saturday May 16th, 2009

Eastern Conference Finals: (4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (6) Carolina Hurricanes

Regular season series: Pittsburgh won 2-1-1 Oct. 23: Hurricanes 1 at Penguins 4 Dec. 4: Penguins 4 at Hurricanes 2 Jan. 20: Hurricanes 2 at Penguins 1 Apr. 4: Penguins 2 at Hurricanes 3 (OT)

THE SKINNY: All things being equal, this is the series that shouldn't be. Last season's Cup finalists, the Penguins, already have won more series (two) this year than did the previous 11 runners-up combined (one). The upstart Hurricanes surprised everyone but the Carolina faithful by knocking off the division champs from the Atlantic and the Northeast in dramatic, seven-game style.

Unpredictable as this pairing was, it should make for a tense, thrilling series characterized by some noteworthy parallels. Both teams floundered in the early going, only to turn their seasons around with a coaching change. Both teams boast an under-appreciated but battle-tested defense corps. And both teams enter the series with a confidence in their systems that borders on religious fervor.

Despite those similarities, this still looks like Pittsburgh's series to lose, doesn't it? There's a lean, hunger driving the play of Sidney Crosby that has to unnerve any opponent. Falling short last June is motivating hockey's best player in the way that only coming so close can. The leading scorer in the playoffs with 12 goals and 21 points, Crosby is just one of three elite centers (Evgeni Malkin, third with 19 points, and Jordan Staal) who give the Pens unmatched depth down the middle. They also run out a power play that clicked on five of its last 10 chances against the Washington Capitals. Little wonder they're averaging better than a goal per game more than Carolina (3.46 to 2.36) this spring.

Of course, the Canes have a few cards to play, too. Their penalty kill limited the Bruins to just two power-play goals in their series and blanked them on four critical chances in Game 7. In 2006 Conn Smythe-winner (and 2009 candidate) Cam Ward, they have a netminder who already has outdueled Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas and who almost certainly will play at a higher level than Marc-Andre Fleury. The Pens may have the most potent offense Ward has faced yet, but remember this: He's never lost a playoff series in his career (6-0).

And while Carolina's offense can't quite match the wattage of Pittsburgh's, it just keeps coming. Eric Staal (9-4-13) may be the only high-end threat, but his domination of Zdeno Chara suggests another challenging series for Hall Gill and Rob Scuderi. And while no one on the support staff truly stands out (nine forwards have combined for 22 goals), they find a way to light the lamp at the most fortuitous moments. Expect Jussi Jokinen (who leads the postseason with three game-winners), Sergei Samsonov and Ray Whitney to bring enough speed and net presence to challenge the mobility of Pittsburgh's D.

Paul Maurice gives the 'Canes a clear advantage over Dan Bylsma. Maurice has been masterful in the first two rounds, consistently working the match-ups that best served his purpose.

And then there's this final point to ponder: The core of this Carolina team already has won a Cup. The Pens haven't. If it comes down to a battle of wills, that may give the decisive edge to the 'Canes.

The Spotlight Is On: Eric Staal/Jordan Staal. Even the inevitable overkill by the broadcasters (Oh, look! It's Ma and Pa Staal in the stands! Who will they cheer for? And who's home taking care of the big red tractor?) won't detract from what should be the most compelling subplot of this series. As the checking line center, Jordan will be tasked with shutting down Carolina's top scoring threat...who just happens to be the guy who used to pick on him back home in Thunder Bay. Both pivots are big, mean and highly competitive, so look for their frequent confrontations to be nasty, physical displays of oneupsmanship --exactly what you'd expect from brothers.

X-Factor for Penguins: Miroslav Satan. No, I can't believe I just typed that, either. The guy was such a dog earlier in the season that he could have called the ASPCA to intervene on his behalf when he was demoted to the AHL. It shows how frustrated the Pens were with Petr Sykora that Satan was given a shot at redemption in the playoffs. To his credit, he made the most of his chance, offering up creative, productive and, at times, feisty play in the series against the Caps. If Satan can keep that up, Pittsburgh's second line becomes that much more dangerous.

X-Factor for Hurricanes: Rod Brind'Amour. The captain was knocked for a loop by an errant puck early in OT of Game 7, but the word out of Raleigh suggests Brind'Amour will be ready for action when the ECF opens on Monday. Good thing. Carolina definitely needs his veteran leadership and his skills in the face-off circle...but it could use a bit more mustard around the net. He finished the season on a tear, scoring 20 points in his final 17 games, but he must not have left enough rum for Jobu before the playoffs because his sticks have gone cold. He was blanked against the Devils, and had just two points against the Bruins. Anything he contributes could help tilt the balance their way.

The Pick: Hurricanes in seven. Western Conference Finals preview Playoffs Schedule

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