The Eastern Conference Finals.
A Stanley Cup Finals berth is on the line.
Who will advance?
The Carolina Hurricanes, the team that wasn't meant to be here. The team where unlikely players become stars overnight. The team of Eric Staal?
Or the Pittsburgh Penguins, looking for a second-straight shot at the Stanley Cup. The team of one of the greatest combos of this decade: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin? Firecrackers will be in the house for their games, don't doubt me.
Once again, who will advance???
Mark Jones' Eastern Conference Finals preview:
First Offensive Line
The Pens don't really have a top line. Instead they have three talented forwards anchoring the top three lines: Crosby, Malkin, and Jordan Staal. However, this order is often switched up in favor of both Crosby and Malkin together on the top line.
This pairing is very successful for the Penguins, with Sid-the-Kid's 12 goals and nine assists these playoffs and Malkin's 19 points (6 goals, 13 assists).
However, Jordan Staal has not been very profitable so far these playoffs, with just two goals, three assists, and a -4 rating. Facing off against his brother sure won't improve that.
On the other hand, Carolina's top line of Ray Whitney, Eric Staal, and either Erik Cole or unlikely hero Scott Walker has been very good.
Staal has nine goals already these playoffs. Whitney has just three goals and six assists but was the Hurricanes' regular-season points leader and has the potential to break out of his small slump.
Erik Cole (who returned to the Canes from Edmonton at the trade deadline) has terrific chemistry with the other Eric (Staal), and Scott Walker scored the game-winning goal in Game Seven against Boston with under two minutes remaining in the first OT.
However, it's not enough to match up with the high powered superstars in Pittsburgh.
Lines Two through Four
For the Pens, it has been several usually average players that have really stepped up.
Despite the terribly disappointing postseason (so far) for Pascal Dupius (13 games: 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points, -3), Bill Guerin (nine points), Ruslan Fedotenko (eight points), and Kris Kunitz (seven points, but no goals) have been emerging stars.
For Carolina, the second and third lines are almost as much of a threat as the top line. The second line of Erik Cole (currently) as well as Matt Cullen and Chad LaRose should be taken seriously, and the third line (a.k.a. the NHL line...all three of these players were received in a trade in the past two seasons) of Sergei Samsonov (BOS), Jussi Jokinen (TBL), and Tuomo Ruutu (CHI) is possibly the team's best line.
On the second line, Cullen and LaRose make for an excellent combo on the penalty kill (in scoring, too) and also work well together on this line. Their top-notch chemistry has led them to combine for four goals and nine assists already. Erik Cole has yet to explode, though, and his play may be a huge factor in this series.
On the third line, Samonov picked up four goals in the final five games against his former team, Boston. Ruutu has been quiet yet stayed on the Canes' top line for long periods of time this season, including the first round, and unbelievable Jussi Jokinen has become a household name.
The Finn, who was on waiver wires at Tampa Bay before being traded to Carolina in February, has now notched four very valid game winners, including the shocker with 0.2 seconds remaining in Game Four versus New Jersey.
In the end, Pittsburgh will be able to get a few points off the lower lines, but it's Carolina who has the sensational depth.
For the Penguins, defensive scoring is crucial. Mark Eaton already has four goals and is an incredible +6, yet has just five points, and Sergei Gonchar (often mistaken for a forward) and Kris Letang have combined for five goals, 14 assists, and 19 points together on the top line.
However, it's worth noting that Brooks Orpik has yet to find the back of the net (4 pts. though), Rob Scuderi has just three points, and Hal Gill is a dreadful 0 goals-1 assist.
For the Hurricanes, it's a bunch of unknown slightly holding their ground against much higher-powered opponents. Ex-Senator Joe Corvo has fit in very well with Carolina, despite having a quiet playoffs (1 goal, 5 assists, 6 pts, +4), and his pairing on the top defensive line with Tim Gleason (who's a fighter, not a scorer) actually led to a game-winning goal by Gleason against NJ.
The second line of Dennis Seidenberg and Joni Pitkanen also has 12 points combined, yet strangely no goals.
Finally, on the third line, Niklas Wallin has been dormant with no points in 14 games, partner Frantisek Kaberle (1 pt. in 4 GP), and Anton Babchuk, who's looked horrendous for most of the playoffs after a breakthrough season and was replaced by Kaberle last game, haven't been too powerful, either.
Although the Canes do have some players who can put the puck in the net, it's Pittsburgh who receives a slight advantage here.
Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury has been decent, especially in his final game, but hasn't been too spectacular either. He's 8-5, but has an oppressive .901 save percentage and a 2.77 GAA, which is going to make it tough to dominate the Canes' widespread scoring.
Another issue he might have is that the Hurricanes have already beaten Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas, two top-level goaltenders, and will be used to scoring on the greats.
For Carolina, Cam Ward has been sensational. He's returned to his Conn Smythe form, posting a .927 save percentage along with two shutouts (in just 14 games), plus he has a 2.22 GAA.
He was a brick wall in OT against Boston in Game Seven, making stop after stop, including on a three-on-none for the Bruins. He also held Boston to 0-for-4 on the power play in that game.
Although Fleury can hold his ground for the Pens, Cam Ward is once again an elite NHL goalie and will absolutely destroy Marc-Andre in all categories.
Carolina powerplay percentage: 10.4 (third worst out of the 16 playoff teams).
Pittsburgh powerplay percentage: 19.7.
Now we're going to reverse it.
Carolina penalty kill: 90.7 percent (second-best out of 16 playoff teams).
Pittsburgh penalty kill: 81.6 percent.
Plus, remember that Cullen and LaRose chemistry? It works on the PK, too. Four shorthanded goals and four shorthanded assists in the past four months for these two guys.
Overall Ratings (out of 20)
First Line...17 out of 20 (ADV)
Average rating: 13.2 out of 20
First Line...13 out of 20
Other Lines...16/20 (ADV)
Penalty Kill...16/20 (ADV)
Average Rating: 13.5 out of 20
Hurricanes will win if...
- Cam Ward continues to be stellar in goal.
- The powerplay gets going.
- Eric Cole, Tuomo Ruutu, and Ray Whitney get into the scoring.
- The defensive pairing of Seidenburg and Pitkanen find the back of the net a few times.
- Jordan Staal continues to struggle for the Pens.
Penguins will win if...
- Marc-Andre Fleury can equal how Brodeur or Thomas played.
- Jordan Staal breaks out of his slump.
- The Penguins figure out Cam Ward's few weaknesses.
- The Penguins can net some powerplay goals.
- Jussi Jokinen cools down for the Hurricanes.
Game One...Hurricanes 2, Penguins 4...PIT leads 1-0
Game Two...Hurricanes 4, Penguins 3 (OT)...series tied, 1-1
Game Three...Penguins 2, Hurricanes 4....CAR leads 2-1
Game Four...Penguins 3, Hurricanes 2...series tied, 2-2
Game Five...Hurricanes 5, Penguins 3...CAR leads, 3-2
Game Six...Penguins 0, Hurricanes 3
Totals Goals Scored: 35
Series Prediction: Carolina Hurricanes win series in six games.
Much thanks to www.gettyimages.com for the uploaded title picture.