Wednesday May 27th, 2009

Carolina coach Paul Maurice said he wasn't worried about winning four straight against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He just needed his Hurricanes to win one game.

But even that baby-step approach proved too onerous for the outworked, outhustled and overmatched 'Canes, as Pittsburgh swept them out of the Eastern Conference final with a 4-1 win in Game 4 on Tuesday night.

"I thought the fight was a little better tonight," Maurice said afterward, clearly struggling to find the right words. "We thought we could come back.

"I don't think we had a lot left in the tank, to be honest. We went to the well a lot of times, spent a lot to earn the right to be here; but in reading faces when they were coming back to the bench ... we'd spent an awful lot."

Those faces looked considerably more hopeful when Carolina bolted out of the chute and hemmed the puck in Pittsburgh's end from the opening faceoff. Just 1:36 into the contest, Eric Staal picked up the puck behind the net and slammed a wraparound attempt past Marc-Andre Fleury's left pad to give the 'Canes the early 1-0 lead.

Could Maurice have dreamed it any better? Staal's ineffectiveness to this point was a major reason why his team trailed 3-0. Carolina needed something, anything, from its offensive leader. Getting him on the board after a six-game goal-less drought was huge. But it was the way he scored that suggested the Hurricanes might finally earn a better result.

They established their cycle, pounded Pittsburgh's defense and controlled the play down low. Finally, after three games of playing chase, the Hurricanes had asserted their brand of hockey. It was everything you'd expect from a desperate team. But then they fell into the same self-dug holes that had sabotaged them throughout the series. As in the first three games, they failed to build on that early momentum. They created opportunities, but Fleury slammed the door on quality chances from Rod Brind'Amour, Matt Cullen, Ray Whitney and Sergei Samsonov ... all the support players Carolina needed to step up and match Staal's contribution.

And then Carolina's defenders started getting the yips at the offensive blueline, creating the turnovers that helped Pittsburgh's depth players score four unanswered goals.

First, it was Ruslan Fedotenko, who always seems to chip in when it matters most. Whether it was a brilliantly executed shot pass -- or a slapper gone awry that just ended up in the right place at the right time -- Philippe Boucher's point blast hit Fedotenko on the tape as he slid through the crease behind Cam Ward to tie it up seven minutes later. It was his eighth goal in 11 elimination games.

Then, Max Talbot picked up an errant Nic Wallin pass at his own blueline, raced down the ice and fired a weak wrister that fluttered over Ward's glove to give the Pens a 2-1 lead in the final 90 seconds of the first.

It was ugly, the classic back-breaker. There were still two periods to play, but when that one went in, the Cardiac 'Canes were ready for their toe tags.

That's what sloppy goaltending will do. Carolina wouldn't have made it this far without Ward's excellent play through the first two series, but he didn't step up against the Penguins. He may have been nursing a back injury, but there's no room for excuses this time of year. Bottom line: He failed to make the timely save, and too often was guilty of overplaying the puck.

To be fair, his defense almost seemed to be conspiring against him. Boucher's pass/shot would have been blocked if Dennis Seidenberg hadn't inexplicably lifted his skate at the last moment. Talbot's wrister would have resulted in a routine save if Babchuk hadn't deflected it. And Bill Guerin might never have buried the easy tip-in that made it 3-1 in the second -- if Tim Gleason succeeds at either tying up Sidney Crosby or disrupting the pass.

But that's the way this thing seemed destined to play out. Even though Carolina offered its most physical, most focused game of the series, the result wasn't in doubt for long.

For that, credit the Pens and their robotic devotion to their five-man defensive system. After allowing Carolina that early flurry, they made their adjustments, clogging the neutral zone to stall the forecheck, creating turnovers and forcing the 'Canes to chase them. Carolina managed a few late chances, leaving Fleury to make the best of his 30 saves on the night, but by then it was too late.

Dan Byslma stayed with his seven D lineup, keeping his blueliners fresh and adding chances for Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to be on the ice with fourth liners Miro Satan and Craig Adams, who capped off the series with an empty-netter. The dynamic duo didn't define the game, but they were involved throughout. And while Malkin's six-game multi-point streak ended, it didn't matter. Pittsburgh got the secondary scoring it needed. Carolina didn't. And that's why the Hurricanes are staying home.

So now the Penguins have become the first team since the 1984 Oilers to lose in the finals and get a chance for redemption the following year. Edmonton turned the tables on its tormentors (the New York Islanders) in that rematch. At this point, the Pens are a decent bet to do the same. They're healthy and confident, and they've won eight of nine, scoring 42 goals in that stretch.

You think they're ready for the next round? Oh, yeah.

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