The Cardiac Canes have the Pittsburgh Penguins right where they want them.
Losing the first game of a playoff series for Carolina is like the late Luciano Pavarotti clearing his throat. This thing doesn't start until the fat man sings. The 3-2 (BOX | RECAP)defeat in Game 1 Monday was a mere prologue for a franchise that, like recent Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, seems to prefer laying off the early speed before making a late charge. The Hurricanes offered tantalizing hints of another lengthy series even though they again, sigh, lost an opener. Carolina now has spotted opponents the first game in five of their past seven playoff series -- including to New Jersey and Boston this spring. The Hurricanes, of course, have won six of them so far. There was little in Game 1 against Pittsburgh to suggest that they can't pull off yet another upset.
The Hurricanes clearly had to jerk their brains into the Eastern Conference final after spending the first 15 or so minutes of the first period apparently reminiscing about their Game 7 overtime win last week in the new Boston Garden. But after allowing Pittsburgh goals 84 seconds apart in the middle of that first period -- a Miroslav Satan breakaway coming out of the penalty box and an Evgeni Malkin backhand that beat goalie Cam Ward to the far side -- Carolina formally joined the series. The Hurricanes buzzed on the forecheck and forced the Pittsburgh defense into nervous turnovers. They seemed hungrier for the puck and stronger on it than the marquee Penguins. Were it not for a disallowed goal on which Erik Cole was penalized for goalie interference when he railroaded Pittsburgh defenseman Hal Gill into goaltender Marc-André Fleury -- either Cole clearly doesn't know his own strength or Gill is a remarkably delicate flower for a man who stands 6'7" and weighs almost as much as the legal briefs in the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy case -- the Hurricanes would have been tied heading into the third period.
Looking past a plethora of sloppy line changes and a first-period leg injury to Tuomo Ruutu, which could be telling given that the Hurricanes lack the Penguins' scoring depth, Carolina had so many things on which to build. The fulcrum remains Ward, who has been magnificent throughout the playoffs. Although he looked flatfooted on Satan's breakaway, he was marvelous about 7½ minutes into the third period when he foiled Malkin, the NHL's regular-season scoring leader, on another breakaway. (Ward seemed fooled on Philippe Boucher's winning power-play goal in the third, beaten five-hole on a screened knuckler when he seemed to be expecting something more muscular from the normally heavy-shooting defenseman.) And although the matchups might not have looked flattering entering the series against favored Pittsburgh, the Hurricanes two top defense pairs -- Joni Pitkanen with Dennis Seidenberg and Joe Corvo with Tim Gleason -- did not look overwhelmed by the Malkin and Sidney Crosby lines. In 2006 Carolina won a Stanley Cup with a relatively No Name defense. This group might be its equal.
But the most encouraging sign, at least until he had a leg-on-leg with the Penguins' Matt Cooke in the third period, was the first sign of life in the playoffs from Cole. He had been a shadowy figure if not exactly the invisible man through the first two rounds, but he turned downright ornery against Pittsburgh. Cole threw his weight around while searching for hits, spent some quality time around Fleury's crease and generally looked like the tonic for Eric Staal that he had been late in the season after general manager Jim Rutherford repatriated the winger from Edmonton. He drew an assist on Chad LaRose's second-period goal.
The first game of any series often is an introduction, never more than between two teams that don't know each other all that well - with the exception of the Staal brothers, Eric and Pittsburgh's Jordan, of course. (They took the faceoffs at the start of all three periods, which was a sweet touch.) The temperature surely will rise between teams that with six weeks left in the season looked like they both would miss the playoffs.
But if the Penguins had one eye on a possible Stanley Cup rematch with the Detroit Red Wings, they better refocus on what is in front of them. This series won't be played on paper or won on reputation. And now that Carolina ritually has ceded the opener, things could really get interesting. There is no team that deserves its playoff mulligan more than Carolina.