RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—Tonight, there was really only pride on the line. The last time a team came back from a 3-0 series deficit was in 1975, and that squad had it easy – no Malkin or Crosby. The ‘Canes played like a team that didn’t want to be swept, but as Maurice said, “it was that kind of night.”
Eric Staal’s scoring slump has been one of the major reasons the Hurricanes found themselves in trouble, but it didn’t make a difference tonight. Staal put the ‘Canes on the board a minute and a half into the game when he wrapped the puck around and poked it past Fleury’s skate. Before then, the ‘Canes were 6-0 when Staal scored a goal.
“It’s going to take a few days to process everything that’s gone on this season,” Staal said after the game. “Right now it doesn’t feel very nice to know that tomorrow, we’re all done.”
Anton Babchuk, who enjoyed an improbable breakout year for the ‘Canes, was banished from the playoffs during the Boston series due to his poor defensive play and the sudden ineffectiveness of his slap shot. Tonight, he was brought back for one last hurrah while Frank Kaberle sat. Patrick Dwyer went in for Tuomo Ruutu, who is still fighting a lower body injury.
Later in the first, Ruslan Fedotenko lurked beside the net, completely unbeknownst to the ‘Canes’ defensive core. Ward went way out of the net to block the shot, but the shot went wide and turned into a pass, and Fedotenko tipped it right into the wide-open net.
Deadlocked going into the second period? Not on your life, buddy. It’s become an unwritten rule that the ‘Canes have to cough up a tie late in the first period.
The ‘Canes killed off a penalty and looked very strong. Staal’s line was cycled the net as though they were trying out for a Jaws sequel. A quick turn the other way and fluky goal off a terrible play by Cam Ward put the ‘Canes at a disadvantage. Wallin pinched in too far and Babchuk was there to smother Maxime Talbot’s scoring chance. However, Talbot got a quick shot off and it deflected off Babchuk’s skate. The puck popped up and Ward followed the arching shot, but it hit the top of his glove and went in. That will be one of the easier playoff goals of Talbot’s career.
Staal was an inspired man tonight, not willing to let his postseason go so easily, and Mo threw him over the boards at every chance. The ‘Canes outshot the Penguins and had endless perfect chances, but the bounces weren’t in their favor tonight. Anyone who had trouble believing Pittsburgh led all playoff teams in shot blocking through two rounds (or maybe it was just me?) saw why during these two games in Raleigh.
Babchuk got stuck and the Penguins received a three-on-one breakaway that brought the score to the same total. Sidney Crosby held onto the puck and easily executed that give-and-go tip-in play that opponents have come to know and despise. Bill Guerin was the recipient this time.
Craig Adams scored his second empty-netter in as many games and the season was over.
“It’s hard to look in the mirror after the game and say that you played your best when you didn’t,” Walker said. “Everyone left it out on the ice tonight. They played right too the buzzer.”
The Caniacs remaining in the stands gave Carolina a standing ovation as the clock wound down and weren’t quite giving enough to resist booing the Penguins. The ‘Canes shook hands and slowly trickled off the ice. Crosby went for it, forsaking hockey superstition and grabbing the Prince of Wales trophy (awarded to the Eastern Conference champion) for photos. Last year, he stuck with tradition and kept his distance, not touching the trophy that’s seen as a step down from the one he and his teammates wanted. Since that obviously was a bust as the Penguins lost in six to Detroit, he and his assistant captains paraded it around the ice.
So that’s it. The Hurricanes gave everyone a season to remember but were no match for the Penguins, who had everything come together for them in this series. The Hurricanes didn’t play as well as they could for sure, but credit where credit is due: This is an unstoppable Pittsburgh team. That is, perhaps, unless your name starts with ‘D’ and ends in “-etroit Red Wings.”