The Carolina Hurricanes' dream of winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in four years has disappeared into oblivion. The Canes were soundly outdueled, 4-1, by the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday night in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Eric Staal opened up the scoring barely 1:30 into the game for the Hurricanes with a forceful wrap-around. But that was Carolina's best play of the night. Carolina came into Game Four with a record of 7-0 when Staal scores.
But after the Canes couldn't get anything more from their made-to-order start, the Penguins silenced the buzzing Caniacs at the RBC Center with a goal by Ruslan Fedentenko.
Philippe Boucher faked a shot, then unleashed what initially appeared to be a real shot. But he was actually making a deceptive pass to Fedentenko, who slid under Carolina's defense, took the tape-to-tape pass and literally placed the puck in the Hurricanes' net like a goalie might "set the puck on a tee", so to speak, for a skater retreating back into his own zone to get the puck and then speed back up the ice to rejoin the play.
The speed and ease with which the Pens made the play shocked me as I watched it on TV. It must have made the same impact on the fans in the arena, because the rink got quieter than it had been all game when they realized what had happened. The first goal had been scored with skill and offensive awareness.
But if you were pulling for the Canes, the luck required to Pittsburgh's second goal drove the dreaded point home that Game Four was not going to be the Canes' night.
Late in the first period, Maxime Talbot pressured the puck and came up with a steal out of the left point. He burst out to the front of the pack of skaters trailing him, then pulled up and skirted off to the left in the high slot. As he did so, Talbot flicked the puck at the net.
The rubber disk glanced off of Anton Babchuk, who was defending the play for Carolina. The puck then turned into a knuckleball, somersaulting unpredictably through the air. Who knows what exactly caused him to react so badly, but something about the play confused Carolina goalie Cam Ward. He got some of his glove on the shot, but even so, it clumsily fell into the net, easily clearing the crossbar. Pittsburgh 2, Carolina 1.
Now the hockey gods were on Pittsburgh's side. To a Canes fan, the goal was the proverbial end to the game and series—even though the first period wasn't over yet—and it exuded hopelessness and futility.
Hopelessness that nothing could be done to win the game, much less three more after it. If the hockey gods are against you, you don't win. Because the desired result—winning Game Four, and eventually the series—couldn't be produced, why try to cheer a doomed team to victory?
The Canes have made themselves famous for comebacks achieved through hard work and execution (ex. "Miracle at Molson," "Shock at the Rock," among others). While Carolina fulfilled the first part of the prophecy—they never gave up, even when it was all but official that they had lost—but the execution was sorely missing.
Give it up for the Penguins. After they stretched their 2-1 lead to 3-1 late in the game, they turned it up defensively and stonewalled the Canes in the final minutes. But even before the Penguins started playing their stingiest defense of the year, Carolina couldn't take advantage of any scoring chance they earned. No matter how close they got, the Hurricanes couldn't finish.
Fedetenko scored easily because Dennis Seidenberg lost him down low on the weak side. If Joni Pitkanen had done a better job of defending the pass Sidney Crosby slung to Bill Guerin for the Pens' third goal, the pass never makes it and Guerin doesn't score.
As a matter of fact, Carolina goaltender Cam Ward likely covers the puck and gets a whistle resulting in a faceoff if Pitkanen breaks up the pass.
Even when you have a goalie like Cam Ward at his best (which he wasn't in this series), he won't be able to do his job if you don't give him any help defensively. No goalie can make the important stops without some defensive help.
The lack of scoring and myriad defensive lapses have been series-long issues for the Canes. You can't be successful in the playoffs if you're giving up myriad goals but not scoring any yourself. In fact, you can't win in the regular season if you're guilty of doing those things.
That's why the Hurricanes will be watching the Stanley Cup Finals on TV instead of playing in them.