Saturday May 23rd, 2009

I'm not sure who controls the music in the Hurricanes' dressing room, but if they're looking to make a point before tonight's Eastern Conference final game, might I suggest a mash-up of Bonnie Tyler's Holding Out For A Hero and Olivia Newton-John's Let's Get Physical?

A little on the kitschy side, sure. Both songs have the gravitas of an episode of Spongebob Squarepants, But while the guys are moaning for some Slayer or Children of Bodom or whatever else sets them on a pre-game emotional edge, maybe they'll pause for a moment and get the message.

If Carolina hopes to avoid digging itself an inescapable 3-0 hole in its series against Pittsburgh, it's time for the 'Canes' best players to start being their best players ... and a little bit of old-fashioned testosterone in the defensive zone wouldn't hurt, either.

Cliché? Maybe. Carolina isn't as overmatched as it looked at times during Games 1 and 2, but it's clear that those were two areas where Pittsburgh displayed a clear advantage.

In those contests, Sidney Crosby has a goal and two assists and was a force on the puck in all three zones. Meanwhile, Evgeni Malkin offered up one of those messianic performances in Game 2 that reminds everyone that the debate over which player is the NHL's best can't be held without including the league's leading scorer. When both are creating space down low and generating chances in close, the Penguins are all but unstoppable.

Carolina's marquee players? Effective to a point, but not nearly effective enough. Eric Staal is better remembered for a pair of unconverted chances late in each game than for the lone secondary assist he earned in Thursday's 7-4 spanking. Lining up against his pesky younger brother, Jordan, he's been checked to a virtual standstill by double, and sometimes triple, team attention.

Ray Whitney and Sergei Samsonov are finding their time and space along the half wall being compressed by Pittsburgh's aggressive checking, And if either had the inclination to leave their comfort area and go to the net as an alternative, they'd end up wiping the snow off the seat of their pants thanks to the no-fly zone imposed by the Pens' physically minded blueliners.

This is where they really miss Tuomo Ruutu and Erik Cole, players willing to pay the price to get to those fat rebounds that Marc-Andre Fleury routinely offered up. Ruutu, sidelined by a Matt Cooke hit in the opener, is questionable for Game 3. Cole returned to action after an injury of his own in Game 1, but he doesn't seem to play with the same reckless abandon against the Pens as he can against other squads. Residual mental damage from the broken neck he suffered courtesy of a Brooks Orpik hit two years ago? Maybe.

And then there's Cam Ward. Any time your offense gives you four goals in the playoffs, you're probably going to win ... unless, of course, your goalie coughs up six as Ward did in Game 2.

That's not to say Ward wears the horns for that loss. With the Penguins dictating possession through the first two games, they chose to spend most of their time camped directly in and around Ward, a troubling trend born out by their 73-52 shots advantage. Carolina's defense may be adept at moving the puck, but Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo and Dennis Seidenberg have shown far less aptitude for moving bodies. That means the Pens aren't just getting chances -- they're earning two-foot putts.

You can't blame Ward for those, or for the three backdoor goals Pittsburgh scored in the first two games. Still, he has to be better. A lot better. Truth is, the Penguins' deep arsenal gives Fleury a little breathing room. They can survive an off night from their netminder. Carolina can't survive an off shift. Ward might not have to commit outright theft to get the 'Canes back in this thing, but some light fingers and a morally ambiguous conscience wouldn't hurt.

The 'Canes should get a boost from returning home, and not just because of Raleigh's rabid fans (who rapidly are building their argument for being the most enthusiastic in the league). Last change will allow Paul Maurice to dictate the matchups -- and mismatches -- that Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma used to his advantage in Games 1 and 2. That means Staal should see a little less of his brother and Malkin should see more physical response in the form of Tim Gleason.

But it all comes down to stars living up to their billing and the ability of Carolina's defense to make life miserable for Pittsburgh's marauding forwards. It's a familiar tune this time of year, but its also one the 'Canes need to memorize.

If not, they might need a selection from the Ramones' songbook for a little inspiration before Game 4: I Believe In Miracles.

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