Tuesday May 26th, 2009

At this point, the outcome of the Pittsburgh-Carolina series is no longer in question. It's just a matter of when the Penguins can drop the polite "we're not looking ahead" mantra and officially start talking about the Detroit Red Wings.

Sorry, Hurricanes fans. The record shows that I had your back before the series started and some prankster filled the skates of your forwards with Lafarge Duraguard cement. Before your defense got the yips every time it touched the puck -- or worse, every time Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin touched it. Before Cam Ward channeled the spirit of Michel Belhumeur (all right, maybe that's a little harsh, but you get the point).

There's plenty to be proud of in Raleigh -- who would have imagined back in December that the Hurricanes would be in the conference final? But after watching this team get worn down and picked apart in three straight, it's clear that the end is nigh. After knocking off the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in a pair of energy-sucking seven-game series, the Hurricanes look like they have little left to give.

With their tanks depleted, the 'Canes have been beaten at their own game. They came into the Penguins' series billed as a team that could move its feet, and more important, the puck, pretty quickly. But they've run into a team that's fresher, stronger and flat-out faster. And not just faster with the puck or in transition. The Penguins have gotten to loose pucks with greater alacrity. And once they've won those battles, they've made quicker decisions with the biscuit.

"That has to do with nonverbal communication," Carolina coach Paul Maurice told The News & Observer of Raleigh. "It has to do with everybody moving or having a general idea of where that puck's going, so they all get into that motion prior to it."

So, the Penguins are psychic, too? No wonder the 'Canes are one loss away from cleaning out their lockers.

As far as the Pens are concerned, the faster they dispatch the Hurricanes and move on to the series they've been waiting a year for, the better. At this point, their biggest hurdle may be themselves. More to the point, a lack of killer instinct. The Pens failed to close out the Flyers and the Capitals on their first attempts, and while letting the 'Canes off the hook in tonight's Game 4 would give them a chance to finish the series in front of their home fans at the Igloo (and pad Mario Lemieux's pocketbook), this is a lousy time of year to expend themselves unnecessarily.

The Hurricanes thrive off the raucous energy of the RBC Center, so the Penguins' chances of ending it tonight improve dramatically if they can take out the crowd early. Not that they can't turn around and silence it in due time -- the Pens managed to turn that trick in Game 3 after allowing Matt Cullen's early tally -- but Pittsburgh is best served by coming out of the chute hot and putting its collective boot on Carolina's throat in the first 10 minutes.

The best way to do that? How about putting twin terrors Crosby and Malkin together to start the game? Sure, they've had no problem creating magic with their own linemates thus far (Malkin has six goals and nine points in the first three contests while that slacker Crosby has just two goals and five points), but together they bring a quick-strike potential Carolina can't counter. And as they've shown in this series at least, the Hurricanes are more mistake-prone, and more vulnerable, while playing catch-up.

Having to play a fifth or even a sixth game might not kill the Penguins, but it won't help their cause, either. An early end allows a bit more recuperative time for Sergei Gonchar's knee and ensures the current list of walking wounded doesn't expand any further.

This series is all but finished. And the faster the Penguins can officially brush aside the Hurricanes and move on to their rematch with the Red Wings, the better. Then maybe they can start talking about that guy who left them last summer and signed with Detroit to improve his chances of winning the Cup. What was his name again...?

Here's a shocker: the NHL has apparently dug deep into its cupboards and discovered a dusty dose of common sense.

Just days after announcing that the Stanley Cup Final would not get underway until June 5 -- meaning a punishing layoff of up to 10 days if the Pens sweep tonight -- the word now is that an early end to both conference series will mean Game 1 could go as early as Saturday night. It's all dependent on how those two series play out, but if Pittsburgh wins tonight and Detroit finishes off Chicago on Wednesday, then Game 1 will be played at Joe Louis Arena on May 30.

We could still get Games 1 and 2 on back-to-back nights to satisfy the demands of NBC, but at least the teams, and fans, wouldn't have to deal with that absurd momentum-killing layoff.

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