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High-tempo action, terrific goaltending and a pair of young brothers at each other's throats welcome to the Eastern Conference finals! Here are five things that stood out in Game 1 between the Penguins and Hurricanes:
1. I have to say, the final minutes of Monday night's Hurricanes-Penguins Game 1 really reminded me of the dying moments of the Canes' Game 7 win over the Devils in the first round. The circumstances and the result were different, but Carolina was again able to maintain sustained time in the offensive zone through hard work and pure will. The sequence could be viewed as a result of total desperation, but I have to think the Canes spend some quality practice time on just these situations. It's not an accident they react so well in a tough spot.
After Joe Corvo's power-play goal with 1:26 left in regulation time cut Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2, Carolina quickly advanced the puck back into the attacking zone and was able to keep the puck alive there for more than 50 seconds. That's a lifetime in that situation. The Penguins had four or five chances to clear the puck, but they just couldn't get it past the blue line. The Canes, with the benefit of the extra attacker, were remarkably strong on the puck, and Corvo and Joni Pitkanen deserve credit for keeping the puck alive along the wall at the point.
In the final minute, Ray Whitney scorched a shot high and wide from inside the right-wing circle. Then, with 28 seconds left, Eric Staal couldn't react quickly enough to Jussi Jokinen's cross-ice pass, which ricocheted off Staal's stick blade and underneath a sliding Marc-Andre Fleury. There was a sigh of relief in Mellon Arena.
Of course, the Canes weren't quite done yet. On the ensuing faceoff, after the Pens finally were able to clear the puck, Corvo lifted an innocent-looking shot from about 170 feet. (That's a guess.) It was innocent enough until the rubber biscuit tumbled out of the air, hit the ice and took an unexpected carom. Fleury, who had been quite nimble all night, was up to the last challenge, lunging to his right to make a blocker stop. "Thank God it didn't go in," Fleury said.
The way things have been going for these crazy Canes in the playoffs, I'm kind of surprised it didn't.
2. After losing two key forwards during the game, the Hurricanes are probably a lot happier with their conference finals schedule, which includes three two-day breaks between games. The added time off might be helpful for their suddenly wounded warriors.
Carolina lost gritty right wing Tuomo Ruutu in the first period after he was slew-footed in front of the Penguins' net by defenseman Mark Eaton. Ruutu struggled to get to the bench and didn't return to the game. Later, with about 12 minutes remaining in the third period, Canes power forward Erik Cole came out on the wrong end of a knee-on-knee collision with Pens pest Matt Cooke. Like Ruutu, Cole struggled to the bench and did not return.
Cole was clearly steamed by the play, and I don't blame him. It didn't really seem as though Cooke was going for a shoulder hit on the play. I don't think it warrants a suspension, but it was a dirty play. Let's face it, Cooke has a history of that sort of thing. Eaton's play wasn't much better. But, unlike Cooke, that's not his M.O. as a player. I'm sure that doesn't make Ruutu feel any better. And, for the record, neither Eaton nor Cooke was penalized.
Either way, Carolina has a problem. If Ruutu, Eaton or both can't return to the lineup, the Canes will lose some of their forechecking muscle. Those players won't be easy to replace.
3. Sometimes, you can be too aggressive. Carolina was just that in the final seconds of its first-period power-play chance. Defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Pitkanen moved to the top of the circles in the attacking zone as they pressed for a quality scoring chance.
And they paid a dear price.
Neither defenseman stayed back to protect against Pens sniper Miroslav Satan, who was coming out of the penalty box. When the Pens were able to clear the puck off a scramble around their net, Satan found himself in perfect position to take advantage. He corralled the puck and moved in on a clean breakaway. Satan showed goalie Cam Ward a little juke before moving around him on the backhand and sliding the puck into the net to give the Pens a 1-0 lead.
After the game, Carolina coach Paul Maurice didn't mince words. "In that spot, we have to have a better awareness of the guy coming out of the box," he said. The Canes play an aggressive game. That's who they are. Still, they'll have to be a little more careful in the next games of the series.
4. After Satan's goal, the Penguins struck again just 84 seconds later when Evgeni Malkin slipped a short, quick backhand past Ward. It was the fifth time during these playoffs the Pens have tallied two goals in less than two minutes. If you remember, they turned that trick twice during their Game 7 blowout win over the Caps in the conference semifinals. On that night, they potted a pair of goals in eight- and 104-second windows.
During his postgame news conference, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby talked about the importance of building on a lead during the playoffs, and there's no doubt those kind of quick-strike moments can be monster swing points during a playoff game. That means players and coaches have to be particularly aware in the shifts following a goal. It's especially necessary against a team such as the Penguins, who have shown their ability to be dangerous in such circumstances.
For fans, I think it's a really good time to take note of which players the coach sends out. It should give you a little insight about how that particular coach views his players and the situation.
5. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma is getting used to his 11 forwards/seven defensemen lineup. It really paid dividends for him in Game 1 when veteran blueliner Philippe Boucher (the seventh defenseman) netted the eventual winning goal and added an assist in just 13 shifts (8 minutes, 28 seconds).
The coach went to that lineup back in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against the Capitals after stud defenseman Sergei Gonchar was unable to play because of a knee injury. When Gonchar returned to action in Game 7, Bylsma figured he'd stay with that look to protect the defenseman, who wasn't at 100 percent.
In this case, I'd stay with the 11/7 look. In the playoffs, I don't think it hurts to have an extra defender on the bench, particularly an experienced one. But that's not why the plan works for the Pens. It works for them because they have mega-centers Crosby and Malkin, who can take turns double-shifting on the fourth line. If they get tired, Jordan Staal can take a twirl. I think it's the best way to maximize their significant skill down the middle.