Penguins-Hurricanes: Eastern Conference Finals Highlight Youth Movement

jonathan staub@JStaubSportTalkCorrespondent IMay 18, 2009

WASHINGTON - MAY 13: Jordan Staal #11 waits for a faceoff against the Washington Capitals during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinal  Round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 13, 2009 in Washington, DC. The Penguins defeated the Capitals 6-2 to move into the semifinals.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes are set to square off in the Eastern Conference Finals, and this series has more to it than meets the eye.

There is a youth movement sweeping across the NHL, and these are two of the three best young teams in the world today; the other team being from Chicago, and playing in the Western Conference Finals.

Pittsburgh’s young talent has been well documented.

Headlined by Sidney Crosby, the Penguins captain leads a young core that consists of himself, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal.

Carolina, on the other hand, is no slouch in the talent department.

Jordan’s older brother Eric [Staal] leads a determined young group that consists of himself, Jussi Jokinen and Conn Smythe winning goaltender Cam Ward.

These two teams have journeyed down a very similar path to get to where they are today, and with the young cores that each team has, this looks to be the first of many postseason meetings between the two clubs.

Left for dead shortly after the all-star break, both Pittsburgh and Carolina finished the season on a torrid pace to enter the postseason with the momentum of a runaway freight train.

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Pittsburgh’s strong finish has been headline news since their coaching changing in mid-February.

The Penguins finished the season on a 21-5-4 tear that elevated them from 10th place in the conference, to fourth.

Lost in the Penguins unprecedented rise through the Eastern Conference standings was the run made by Carolina.

The Hurricanes were nothing more than a category one storm at the turn of the calendar year.

After picking up some steam, this category five super-cell surged into the playoffs on the strength of a 19-6-2 run to close out the season.

These two teams collectively climbed the standings at a pace that set the Eastern Conference on notice.

After two brutal rounds that saw three seven-game series and one six-game series played amongst these two teams, the NHL has undoubtedly taken notice of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins – Def. Philadelphia 4-2, Def. Washington 4-3

After emerging victorious from the NHL’s dream matchup with Washington, Sidney Crosby will lead a high-octane offense, that is clicking on all cylinders, against one of the best young goaltenders in the NHL today.

Sid the Kid is coming off one of the best post-season series of anyone in history after registering 13 points (8 goals, 5 assists) against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

The current points leader in this post-season, Crosby also leads all postseason goal scorers with 12.

Teammate Evgeni Malkin, the NHL’s regular season points leader, was not as vibrant in the spotlight, but still pieced together a very solid series against Washington.

Despite taking the first two games off, Malkin was able to register 10 of the quietest points you’ll never hear about in Pittsburgh’s second round matchup with Washington.

Malkin has registered 19 points this post-season, and has been able to do much of his damage outside of the spotlight.

The Penguins two-headed monster has done their part this postseason, and they have been aided by commendable efforts from their secondary options.

Ruslan Fedotenko, Billy Guerin, Max Talbot, Matt Cooke, Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang all stepped up their game and contributed in the Penguins second-round showdown with Washington.

For all the options and depth that the Penguins have, the spotlight in this series may gravitate towards the youngest star on Pittsburgh’s roster.

Jordan Staal will come front and center in this series, as he will be pitted against his older brother Eric in both the media, and on the ice.

The younger Staal has struggled to get going offensively in this postseason, he has registered a pedestrian five points in these playoffs so far, but his value will be most prevalent in his ability to shut down his older brother on the defensive end.

Jordan is one of the rare premier two-way players in the game who shines not only on the defensive end, but on the penalty kill and in eating clock with aggressive play cycling down low in the offensive end.

Pittsburgh’s most important young stud in this series may not have any effect on the Penguins offensive efforts, but rather in his ability to hamper the Hurricanes' offensive onslaught.

Marc-Andre Fleury was one of the most important factors in Pittsburgh advancing past Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs.

His stellar play was directly responsible for stealing that opening-round series right out from under the Flyers.

Fleury was not as poignant in the Pens second round matchup with the Caps, but made perhaps the most important save of the postseason three minutes into game seven when he stoned Alex the Great on a breakaway.

That save altered the entire course of that game, as well as the series, and that is the “Snowman” that the Penguins will need if they hope to up-end the Hurricanes in the Conference Finals.

Fleury has a 2.72 goals against average this postseason, with a save percentage of .901.

Pittsburgh has been averaging 3.5 goals per game, but they have not played a goalie the caliber of Carolina’s Cam Ward yet in this post-season.

Goals will surely be harder to come by, and this is going to mean that Fleury will need to do a better job between the pipes if Pittsburgh hopes to advance.

(6) Carolina Hurricanes – Def. New Jersey 4-3, Def. Boston 4-3

Carolina has won six post-season series in a row, the last four series in seven games, they have a Stanley Cup Championship to their credit and they have a Conn Smythe goaltender in Cam Ward.

Despite the fact that two years have surpassed since Carolina’s last trip to the postseason, their Cup year of 2006, they have been here before.

Carolina knows what it takes to advance, and they have persevered through two grueling seven-game series to come within one step of advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Hurricanes will go as far as Cam Ward, the Conn Smythe winner of 2006, carries them.

Ward may be the best goaltender remaining in this postseason, and his numbers show it.

Ward’s .927 save percentage is highest among the remaining four goaltenders, and his goals against average of 2.22 is second only to Chris Osgood of Detroit.

Ward had played in three more games than Osgood before the start of the Conference Finals, and managed to shut down two better offensive teams than Columbus and Anaheim.

Ward was 2-0 against the Penguins this season, allowing only three goals and recording a .956 save percentage by stopping 65 of 68 shots thrown at him; Ward has amassed a 9-3-1 record against the Penguins in his career.

Up front, Carolina will live and die with Eric Staal.

The big, young, physical forward leads all Hurricanes with 13 points, and his nine goals are tied for second among active players left this post-season.

A 40-goal scorer in the regular season, Staal has gone cold in his last three post-season games, registering only one assist in three crucial matchups with Boston.

Just like his younger brother Jordan in Pittsburgh, a lot of focus will be centered around Eric and what is likely to be a one-on-one matchup with his Penguin counterpart.

However, it will be the rest of the Hurricane roster that will be crucial for Carolina’s success.

The Penguins offensive fire power is unlike anything the Hurricanes have encountered thus far in the postseason. For them to keep up, players such as Jussi Jokinen, Ray Whitney, Tuommo Ruutu and Sergei Samsonov will need to be regular contributors, as Pittsburgh is sure to centered most of their concentrated efforts on shutting down Eric Staal.

Keys to the series


Defending home-ice

Both teams have shown that they can win on the road. Both Carolina and Pittsburgh clinched each of their series on hostile ice.

Pittsburgh won game six in Philadelphia, and then thoroughly manhandled Washington in our nation’s capital in game seven.

Carolina clinched their first round matchup against New Jersey on the road in game seven, and followed it with a game seven win in Boston in the second round.

Needless to say, both teams have shown uncanny resiliency on the road and won in the face of adversity.

It will be up to Pittsburgh to set the tone of this series by defending their home-ice in game one, and not allowing Carolina to get out to an early lead in the series heading back to Carolina.


Conn Smythe Goaltending


Both of these teams have two of the best young goaltenders in the NHL today.

Marc-Andre Fleury was sensational in carrying the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, and had a spectacular first round series against Philadelphia this year.

After falling off a bit against Washington in the second round, he will be facing a team that has a little less firepower, and will need to come up big for Pittsburgh as his counterpart has a very good track record against the Penguins throughout his career.

These two teams split the season series two games a piece, but neither of Pittsburgh’s two wins came against Cam Ward.

Cam Ward was the 2006 Conn Smythe winner in Carolina’s run to the cup, he has never lost a postseason series and he has some of the best goaltending numbers this postseason.

Pittsburgh has the Eastern Conference’s top offense in the playoffs averaging nearly 3.5 goals per game.

Ward has shown that he can be a championship goaltender, and he will certainly limit Pittsburgh’s chances.

Carolina does not have the scoring depth of Pittsburgh and they will need more low-scoring games if they have any chance of returning to the Cup Finals.

A family affair


With most of the focus in the second round being on Crosby vs. Ovechkin, the Conference Finals will be focused on Jordan and Eric Staal.

Last year, Jordan defeated the third Staal, Marc, on Pittsburgh’s way to the Stanley Cup Finals. This season, Jordan has a chance to eliminate his other older brother, and have some extreme bragging rights around the family dinner table.

This series will come down how successful Eric is offensively against his defensive-minded younger brother.

It is almost safe to expect Carolina’s top-line to go up against the Penguins ground-and-pound third line.

Eric vs. Jordan.

Eric is Carolina’s top scoring option and if he is shut down, plain and simple, Carolina does not have the offensive capabilities to hang with Pittsburgh.

Special teams

Unfortunately for Carolina, Pittsburgh’s power play is starting to round into shape.

After sputtering out for most of the post-season, the Penguins got their act together towards the tail-end of their series with Washington.

Carolina will need to stay out of the penalty box and limit Pittsburgh’s chances.

The Penguins offense is one of the best five-on-five units in the NHL, and they are certain to generate scoring opportunities.

It will be crucial for Carolina to limit those chances, and not give Pittsburgh any more odd-man opportunities than necessary.

Player to watch


He has been force-fed down your throat for a couple weeks now, but Sidney Crosby is the man to watch in this series.

The best player in the world is playing the best hockey of his career when it matters most.

The rest of the Penguins roster has been vocal in their dedication to following Sid’s lead.

After a 13-point series against the Capitals, which is as many points as Carolina’s leading scorer has the entire post-season, Crosby is playing on a level that has been unequaled by anyone in recent memory.

Carolina will need to do what Pittsburgh did to Ovechkin in the second round.

Not necessarily stop him…just hope to contain him.