by Kate Shefte
RBC CENTER/RALEIGH—Home ice didn’t turn out quite the advantage the Hurricanes were hoping for, as they slid into a nearly insurmountable 3-0 series deficit. The Penguins exposed some wide and worrisome holes in the ‘Canes’ defense, easily outplaying the home team en route to a 6-2 win.
Bates Battaglia manned the storm siren at the beginning of the game, which was a nice touch, and Hockey Night in Canada host Don Cherry, an icon north of the border, could be seen down on the ice in the pregame flanked by Storm Squaders. There was an unnerving amount of black and gold in the audience and a few Terrible Towels could be seen twirling around amongst the white ones given out at the door, and those Pittsburgh fans – whether they are season ticket holders biding their time during the regular season or casual patrons that snapped up the tickets as soon as the match-up was decided – had plenty to cheer about tonight.
“We don’t need to be perfect [to beat this team] – we just need to be better,” Eric Staal said in the postgame. “We’re a very good team. We didn’t get this far for no reason, and we didn’t get this far because we’re not good. We haven’t played as well as we can.”
Over three years later, the Caniacs still haven’t forgotten Brooks Orpik’s number. The man who broke Erik Cole’s neck was roundly booed in the first few minutes.
Tuomo Ruutu returned after missing one game with a lower body injury. He was relegated to a fourth line role and totaled ten shifts and under eight minutes.
Matt Cullen got the ‘Canes on the board first for the first time in the series thanks to an amazing individual effort by – again, wow – Patrick Eaves. I might need to re-think my position on this whole Eaves thing; he’s pulling a Chad LaRose on me and excelling all of the sudden. He’s looked good on and off during the playoffs and now has two points in two games.
Back to the goal. Eaves put a wide shot on net and then collected the rebound and circled the net with it. The puck bounced out to Cullen, who slid into the crease on his knees and batted the bouncing puck past an already-committed Fleury, who was pinching far to the right.
Did I say Patrick Eaves was getting better? My mistake. On an Eaves slashing penalty the ‘Canes coughed up the puck to the most dangerous player in the league and watched as their lead evaporated. Staal lost a one-on-one battle at the blue line and though Tim Gleason recovered it, he had the puck taken right off his stick in front of the net. Malkin skated in on Ward alone as the ‘Cane penalty killers watched with mouths agape.
Gleason, upset but personally accountable as ever, called his performance in this game “piss-poor.”
“I’m not doing my job,” Gleason said.
Six minutes and another Pittsburgh power play later, Ward flashed out his glove to deny a Malkin wrister. Cole came out of the box and immediately put together a good scoring chance for Cullen, but the ‘Canes aren’t nearly as good at the spin-o’-rama, opponent-confounded tricky stuff as the Penguins and though Cullen gave a valiant effort, the shot went wide.
As in Game 2, the ‘Canes shut ‘er down for the period prematurely and the Penguins struck twice and essentially iced the series. Dennis Seidenberg had Bill Guerin well covered as he slid into the Carolina zone at the left circle. But Joni Pitkanen on Sidney Crosby? Not so much. Crosby tipped the puck past Ward from close in.
Just when things couldn’t get any worse, Evgeni Malkin duped Gleason again twice along the boards and sneaked in alone. Though Gleason was inevitably and deservedly the scapegoat after being smoked by Malkin on both of his goals, Ward should have had that one. He hugged the post and didn’t react quickly enough to deny Malkin, who skated right around him to make it 3-1. All of this in the final minute after a fairly good period by the ‘Canes – it just goes to show how good the Pittsburgh Penguins are if you give them even the smallest bit of room.
“Defensively we’re having a hard times with our gaps and we have some quickness issues,” Mo said, throwing his hat into the ring for the Understatement of the Evening award.
Anyone who expected to see a different ‘Canes team out of the gate was disappointed. The ‘Canes broke down and hung Ward out to dry again and again, but the Carolina netminder made some out-of-this-world (and exceedingly lucky) diving saves to preserve the two-goal deficit.
Niclas Wallin almost helped out with the scoring problem on the penalty kill. His wicked slapper stunned Fleury and just trickled past the goaltender’s skate while he lay on the ice, but it went just wide of the post.
Down two, the Hurricanes finally started to wake up and play. However, while the Pens didn’t further their lead, they didn’t allow the ‘Canes any room either. Thanks to Carolina giving it everything they had defensively, the score remained the same going into the third.
Sergei Samsonov brought the ‘Canes within one with a fluke goal less than two minutes into the third after Carolina was finally able to put some traffic in front of the net. Samsonov, like Cullen, scored from his knees (no innuendos, please, this is hockey talk!) Fleury unleashed a wild rebound and Samsonov found himself facing a gaping net. He sent it top shelf.
"Pittsburgh...ANGRY." The Pens flurried around the net, trying a few more of those behind-the-net sneak attacks they’re so fond of (and so often work,) but they were met by a desperate Ward. Where was this Cam late in the first period? Reports vary, but he may or may not have briefly joined the tailgaters on the lawn for a quick bite. Who can blame him? Those smells are hypnotic.
It took a scary play for the ‘Canes to gain their first man advantage of the night. Pittsburgh’s Sergei Gonchar hooked Scott Walker, drove him into the boards head first and nudged him with his free hand for good measure. Walker made it back to the bench but was visibly in pain while conversing with trainer Pete Friesen. The ‘Canes couldn’t do anything with the two minute power play.
Ruslan Fedotenko restored the two-goal lead with eight minutes remaining. Fedotenko took a pass from Malkin and unloaded on Ward, who missed the shot cleanly. Once again, the ‘Canes came within a goal in the third but couldn’t get past a collapsing Pittsburgh defense in order to get that one tying goal.
“When you’re opening up against that team, you’re at a distinct disadvantage,” Mo said. “We outshot them 18-9 in the third period and got beat 3-1. You don’t want to be chasing that team.”
A late power play yielded nothing and an empty net attempt backfired. Jussi Jokinen won a faceoff so cleanly that it slid right back into Ward’s vacated net with a minute and a half remaining. Former ‘Cane Craig Adams, his opponent in the circle, was credited with the goal.
Bill Guerin scored another surplus goal on a reeling Carolina team in the waning minutes, putting the final at 6-2.
It would take a miracle, more or less, for the ‘Canes to get themselves out of this one, though they received them so many times this spring. They have been thoroughly manhandled by a more talented Pittsburgh team, and though the players and coach insist that they have not played their best (true) and cling to the “it takes four to win” saying, the ‘Canes are outmatched, missing a superstar while the Penguins’ duo has taken over this series. Well, two superstars, as the one they have has one assist and is -6 in this series.
Only two NHL teams have come back from a 3-0 series deficit to win the series in Game 7, and it’s been a while. The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders were those two squads.
Game 4 on Tuesday night could very well be the last time we see the ‘Canes this season. However, Gleason vows he won’t let that happen.
“This series is not going to be four games,” Gleason insisted.
“If I was to pick a team to be in this spot to try and come back, this would be the one. We’ve done it all year and we’ve done it in this playoffs,” Staal said.