Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Penguins Complete Dismantling of Hurricanes

After pulling out a seven-game series win over the Capitals, the Penguins snuffed out this year's Cinderella squad in the playoffs with a convincing sweep of the Hurricanes that puts the Pens in the Stanley Cup Finals for back-to-back seasons for the first time since the Devils went two years in a row in 2000 and 2001.

The Pens' duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin exposed injuries and weaknesses on the Carolina blueline to generate chances against Cam Ward, and beat the keeper 20 times in just four games.

Now, with a likely rematch with the Red Wings looming, the question is will the Penguins win the trophy this time around, or will if Pittsburgh will win the dubious honor of becoming the NHL's first back-to-back runner-up since the Bruins pulled the feat in 1978 and 1979.

In the aftermath of their 4-1 victory in Raleigh Tuesday, even Crosby was willing to fly against hockey superstition and grab the Prince of Wales Trophy and carry it off the ice. Usually captains treat conference hardware like the plague and either leave it sitting on the table, but he decided to do something different after last year's six-game loss to the Red Wings.

"We didn't touch it last year," said Crosby in a postgame interview on VERSUS. "And things didn't go the way we wanted, so we thought we'd switch it up this year."

Will it make a difference? The one big challenge that the Red Wings will provide that the Flyers, Capitals and Hurricanes did not is a much tougher defense that will limit more of Pittsburgh's shots. Like the latter stages of the Washington series, the Pens were allowed to go free-wheeling in the Carolina zone, and Pittsburgh finished the Eastern half of the bracket averaging nearly 35 shots per game.

Trouble is for the Penguins, if the Red Wings advance, they're getting even more shots per game (39.1), while they both are scoring at a 3.8 clip in goals-per-game, Detroit has only allowed 2.20 goals-per-game to Pittsburgh's 2.76. And, the Red Wings are looking pretty dominant against a younger - but similar - team in style to the Penguins with the Blackhawks, even despite some key injuries in the Detroit lineup.

To be sure, Pittsburgh has been solid since dropping the first two games of the Capitals series, winning eight of nine games, with the one coming in overtime of Game 6. However, revenge notwithstanding, Detroit probably isn't the best matchup for the Penguins with a tougher defense that isn't likely to give the Penguins the room they've enjoyed over the past couple of weeks.

While Detroit goaltender Chris Osgood certainly can be exposed by the potent Penguins offense, so too can Marc-Andre Fleury, who really has seen only a few good chances on him in this series as the Pens were able to play a puck control game against the 'Canes - something that will be difficult to do against the Red Wings.

Of course, it's up to the Red Wings tonight to bring on an ill-advised long wait before the Stanley Cup Finals begin next Friday, as Chicago will hope to stave off elimination tonight at Joe Louis Arena.

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