The Pittsburgh Penguins can close out the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals with a win over the Carolina Hurricanes tonight at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C. Judging by the way the series has gone so far, that's exactly what's going to happen.
The Penguins have used everything imaginable to jump out to their commanding 3-0 lead.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been superb when called upon. Everyone has moved the puck and themselves well in the offensive zone. Stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have combined for eight goals, six assists, 114 points and a plus-minus of plus-9.
Defensive coverage has altogether been stellar. The forwards are using their speed, agility, toughness, and grit down low to work free for in-close chances. The defensemen are shooting with dead-eye accuracy.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, have been the polar opposite.
Goaltender Cam Ward, usually the stalwart of the team, has looked uncharacteristically out of it. It's impossible to only blame Ward for the team's high GAA, but he just hasn't been his usual self lately. Puck movement is careless and loose in all three zones.
Star captain Eric Staal has a measly point in the series. He is also a minus-6. Erik Cole has scored two points via two assists. His plus-minus is zero. Ray Whitney, the team's regular season points leader, has two helpers, but is a minus-5. None of these guys have a goal in this series.
More to the point, the Hurricanes had only won one game in this year's playoffs when Staal didn't score—Game Seven of the series against Boston. He hasn't scored a goal yet, so the Canes haven't beaten the Penguins.
Defensive coverage has been awful. True, gifted players like Malkin and Crosby are going to score, but as good as they are, they are creating and taking advantage of scoring chances every time Pittsburgh establishes possession in the offensive zone.
You can't make plays down low behind the net if you can't get there. The Hurricanes haven't even gotten down there much so far in this series. When they have, they've tried to make hurried passes, which the Penguins have mostly either deflected out of the zone or flat-out intercepted.
Only two goals have been scored by defensemen—one for Dennis Seidenberg and Joe Corvo. Carolina's defensemen have had trouble even working free to receive passes or take shots, much less score goals. Pittsburgh's tight point defense has worked like a charm.
With their comfortable 3-0 series lead, the Penguins ride into Game Four on perhaps the biggest high of their collective season—regular season and playoffs—and as confident as they've been all season. And why not? Everything they've done so far has worked flawlessly and effortlessly.
If they keep playing like they have, they should be headed to the Stanley Cup Finals when the night is over.
The Hurricanes need to get their act together if they're going to have any remote shot to make this a competitive series again. They must play better defense overall and get better puck and body movement going in the Penguins' zone. Most of all, Cam Ward and Eric Staal need to be their absolute best.
Verdict: The Penguins are playing their best hockey of the year right now. You simply can't pick against them until they give you a reason not to.
Prediction: 5-3, Penguins