Sunday May 24th, 2009

Call it a moment of foreshadowing.

As he opened the scoring early in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final, Carolina center Matt Cullen fell to his knees.

It wasn't long before Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins forced the rest of his teammates to theirs.

The Hurricanes got off to the quick start they wanted with Cullen's goal but, as in Game 2, they had no answer for Sidney Crosby and Malkin. Pittsburgh's unstoppable duo each scored in the final minute of the first period to break open a 1-1 game and lead the Penguins to a 6-2 (RECAP | BOX) win.

That's three straight wins for Pittsburgh in the series. Given the way Malkin and Crosby are playing, it's hard to imagine they won't make it four.

Not that Carolina has no fight left. The Cardiac 'Canes haven't quite gone into cardiac arrest. But they're close.

There's effort, but no execution. Battles won in the offensive zone aren't translating into scoring opportunities. As Paul Maurice pointed out, they had 41 shot attempts either go wide or get stopped by a Pittsburgh defender before they got to Marc-Andre Fleury.

Eric Staal's become a non-factor, his goal drought now stretching to six games. He actually generated four shots on the night, but few good chances. Worse, he was on the ice for three Pittsburgh goals (he's now is minus-five for the series) and was a pushover in the circle, winning just five of 18 draws.

He's certainly not the only Carolina forward who's flatlining (the next Ray Whitney sighting in the series will be the first and Erik Cole hasn't scored in 30 playoff games), but without him firing, the Carolina offense hasn't got enough powder to trade volleys with Pittsburgh.

Neither does their defense. It's hard to believe this is the same group whose speed and agility was so effective against New Jersey and Boston. Against the Pens, they've turned into a sextet of bumbling Mr. Beans. When they weren't turning the puck over (the seven gives on the scoresheet hints at the forgiving nature of the local off-ice crew), they were letting their checks fly by unimpeded. Ugly? Oh, yeah.

Tim Gleason compounded what's become a brutal series by coughing up the puck to Malkin on his first goal, then failing to cover him as he drove to the net on the second. Joni Pitkanen neglected to take the man or the pass on Crosby's goal, and spent most the night gliding rather than skating. As a group, they look exhausted.

With that kind of help it's hard to blame Cam Ward for the loss, or for his visible displays of frustration. He did his best to turn the series around, making a nifty glove save on Malkin and stoning Max Talbot three times in close when the outcome of the game remained in doubt. Still, five goals are five goals. He may have stolen shifts, but he couldn't steal the game.

And for that, give full marks to the Pens who, as Dan Bylsma pointed out, are doing the little things the right way. They were far more efficient in their own end, holding Carolina to just 16 shots through two periods and limiting second chances that ended up in the net in Game 2 (good thing, as Fleury continues to spit out far too many fat rebounds).

They got strong supporting efforts from Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, who bounced between centers but provided a steady, physical game down low and from Crosby, who scored the first of those two dagger goals 31 seconds apart in the final minute of the first.

And then there was Malkin.

He may not be God, as Gleason pointed out after he burned the 'Canes for a hat trick in Game 2, but he's been Messier-like. And that's pretty close.

He's been the alpha dog in the offensive end, using his size and strength to grab the puck and get to the net. The second goal was a perfect example: he picked up a loose puck along the boards, danced by Gleason along the goal line and beat Ward with a wrister in tight.

"He's in a zone right now," Crosby said.

No kidding. That's now six consecutive multi-point games for Mama Malkin's boy, topping Mario Lemieux's franchise mark of five and just two off Wayne Gretzky's league record of eight. He has seven goals and 16 points over that span.

And it's not like he punches out once the puck leaves Carolina's zone. Malkin's commitment on the defensive side has been just as critical to the team's success as his point streak. There were plenty of standout moments in Game 3-his devastating hit on Cullen, a couple of nifty takeaways from Staal-but he was just as effective taking care of the little things in his own zone. He was the gum that bogged down multiple Carolina sorties, his body or his stick closing down the passing lanes and taking away shots.

Like a young Messier back in 1984, Malkin is a hungrier, more focused player for having lost in the previous year's final. It is Carolina's misfortune that they ran into him.

So now come the reminders that just two teams-the 1942 Maple Leafs and 1975 Islanders-have ever come back after trailing 3-0 in a series. At the post-game press conference, Paul Maurice didn't sound like a man ready to guide his troops to a third such miracle.

"Our challenge is that we have to find a way to beat 'em once," he said. "We're not looking at trying to beat Pittsburgh four times."

Just as well. The way Malkin is rolling, they haven't got a chance.

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