If the Penguins win, they win the series 4-0 and move on to the Stanley Cup Finals.
But if the Hurricanes win, they will have new life. And their chances at winning this series substantially increase.
Right now the Hurricanes don't have many positives to build on from the first three games of the series other than the fact that all the games were close at one point. They had chances in those games, but they couldn't convert. The lack of execution must have frustrated them by now. Frustration makes athletes press. They get away from their game in an attempt to break out of a funk.
But if the Hurricanes can win Game Four with grit, execution, and a little skill, Carolina's players will get the collective monkey off their backs. Pittsburgh's psychological edge lessens significantly.
In addition, if Carolina wins, the series doesn't seem as hard to win anymore. A two-game deficit is much easier to work out of than a three-game deficit. With the Pens' lead down to two games, the easier road to travel should help boost the players' motivation.
Athletes say that they will give everything they have for a last-ditch effort to save their season. But usually they don't say that when their team is down 3-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series. The difference in the two situations is incredible. In a series tied 3-3, you know the other team feels the same pressure you do.
But when you're down 3-0, there's much more of an "isolation factor," so to speak. It feels like your team is cornered, and the other team is solely focused on making sure you don't escape. No one tries to help you because they think your case is hopeless. You can say you're going to give everything in a last stand to salvage your season, but if there's nothing left to give, how much does "giving everything" help your team?
But cutting the deficit down to two games makes it easier for each member of the team to motivate himself to give 100 percent, and then some. This is especially true for the younger players who have little playoff experience.
Confidence peaks when you win. As you progressively see your hard work turn into a winning effort, after getting beaten badly by the same team several times, your confidence builds gradually throughout the contest. But your newfound confidence doesn't last unless you finish the job. Until you finish the game, you're always wary of a huge, uncontrollable comeback from the other team.
If the Hurricanes win Game Four, their confidence should build slowly throughout the game, and peak to a consistent level once they have officially won the game.
If there's any team in this year's NHL playoffs that can pull off this sort of once-in-a-blue moon comeback, it's the Hurricanes. Their many dramatic comebacks in their North Carolina tenure—including "Miracle at Molson", Game Four of their first-round series against the Devils, and "Shock at the Rock", have earned them the nickname "Cardiac Canes." Carolina is at their best when everyone counts them out.
Pittsburgh, you better take the Hurricanes out in Game Four. Otherwise you might be the victim of one of the biggest comebacks in NHL playoff history. And you may find yourselves going home instead of boarding a plane to the Stanley Cup Finals when this series is over.