Commentary

East finals preview: Penguins vs. Canes

Updated: May 16, 2009, 12:56 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes will have to move quickly to put emotional seven-game sets behind them as they prepare to open the Eastern Conference finals in Pittsburgh.

As the playoffs move along, these series can take their toll on a team. The Penguins needed six games to dispose of Philadelphia before rolling through a tumultuous, high-profile set against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. The Cardiac Canes are coming off two miraculous series in which they won Game 7s on the road, first erasing New Jersey with a thrilling come-from-behind effort late in the third period, then beating top-seeded Boston on Thursday late in the first overtime frame on Scott Walker's first postseason goal.

Talk about a punch in the gut for the Bruins.

Although fatigue might be a factor for both teams, especially Carolina, mental toughness won't be.

The Penguins dropped the first two games against a very good Washington team and went on to win four of the next five, including an emphatic 6-2 victory in Game 7, to advance to their second straight Eastern Conference finals.

For Carolina, it's feast or famine. The Canes have won six straight playoff rounds dating back to their Stanley Cup run in 2006. They've won the past four series in seven games. Of course, they did miss the playoffs for two straight seasons before reappearing this spring.

Still, there is a lot of experience and skill on both benches in this series, which should make for some great up-and-down hockey. After the Washington-Pittsburgh series, people suggested there would be a letdown. But with these two conference matchups -- Detroit and Chicago in the West and the Canes and Penguins in the East -- the next couple of weeks should give us some great hockey.

1. Are you kidding me? (Get it? Sid the Kid?) Oh, we know many of you, especially Caps fans, are tired of hearing about how good Sidney Crosby has been this spring. Well, folks, get used to it. Funny how the same grumbling often was heard when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were being debated.

The fact of the matter is, there isn't a single other player on any team this spring who has been as consistently good as Crosby has. And we don't just mean scoring goals, although he has certainly put the theory that he can't score to bed by notching a league-best 12 goals in 13 postseason games. Crosby's dogged determination on the puck, his penchant for making smart plays at crucial times, has been the catalyst to the Penguins' success at almost every turn.

Witness Game 7 versus the Caps. With a scoreless tie, it was Crosby who scored a difficult goal to break the deadlock. He then set up the third goal 28 seconds into the second period to give the Pens a 3-0 lead and scored again on a power-play breakaway.

"There's no doubt in my mind Sid is the best player in the world," teammate Kris Letang said after Game 7. "I played against him in the Q [Quebec Major Junior Hockey League]. I know the desire that the guy has every time he steps on the ice. You see in his eyes; he wants everything. He wants the puck, and he wants to be the best."

So far this spring, Crosby has done exactly that. And with Crosby's 21 points, the most in these playoffs thus far, the Hurricanes' ability to control him -- or at least limit the damage he can do -- will go a long way in writing the story of this series.

2. Sarge or no Sarge? The moment Ovechkin laid out the Penguins' best defenseman, Sergei Gonchar, with a knee-on-knee hit early in Game 4, it looked as if Gonchar's season was over. There were persistent rumors to that effect until he practiced with the team the day before Game 7.

Sure enough, there was the veteran defenseman on the ice in the deciding game, earning an assist on the game's first goal. He played 15:06, about half what he normally would. Given the Pens' big lead, coach Dan Bylsma no doubt was using his star defenseman conservatively, but there's no question Gonchar isn't going at 100 percent.

Having four days to rest before the start of this series will no doubt come in handy, but how much the injury will hamper his ice time and ability to do the things he does so well -- joining the rush, moving laterally (especially on the power play), skating the puck out of trouble from his own zone -- remains unknown. Alex Goligoski came in to help out on the power play when Gonchar was out, but he looked like the rookie he is. The Pens won Games 4 and 5 without Gonchar and lost Game 6. If his game is diminished, Carolina will have an edge along the blue line.

3. Brothers in arms. This will mark the first time brothers Jordan (Pittsburgh) and Eric (Carolina) Staal will face each other in the postseason (Jordan and Marc of the Rangers did so last spring), and that could provide some interesting battles as both are centers and both aren't afraid to use their big bodies.

Eric will carry a bigger burden going into this series as Carolina's top center and most talented player, leading the team with 13 points in 14 games this spring. The Hurricanes have won every game in which he scored this spring (his nine goals ranked third overall heading into the conference finals). He didn't register a point in Game 7 versus Boston and had just one assist in back-to-back losses against the Bruins that set up Thursday's seventh game. But in a series in which the Canes will be pressed to keep up offensively, Eric will have to continue to deliver the goods.

Jordan, on the other hand, has struggled for much of the postseason. He has, however, scored his only two goals thus far in the past three games and seems to be emerging from his early-playoff funk. Staal's line (with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy) will once again be counted on to pressure the Carolina blue line with solid forechecking and puck control in the offensive zone.

4. Conn Smythe Cam. Heading into action Thursday, the Penguins ranked third among all playoff teams and first in the Eastern Conference in goals per game at 3.46, thanks in large part to Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a deep, talented lineup. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, were 10th. That means they're getting it done defensively; they were third behind Boston in goals allowed per game (2.31 goals). That also means they're getting rock-solid goaltending from former playoff MVP Cam Ward.

Funny, given the collapse of both Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo in these playoffs, Ward suddenly looks like a guy who might challenge for the starting job in Vancouver for the 2010 Canadian Olympic team. But we digress.

Ward has been terrific, especially in pressure situations, refusing to allow Carolina opponents to open up two- or three-goal leads when it mattered most. He was sensational again in Game 7, stopping 34 of 36 Bruins shots. Ward definitely provides a more difficult test for the Penguins than Martin Biron in Philly and Simeon Varlamov and once-upon-a-time starter Jose Theodore in Washington.

Ward, therefore, puts more pressure on Marc-Andre Fleury in the Pittsburgh net to play as he did in Game 7 against Washington. Fleury has made timely saves throughout this postseason, but he just as often has been guilty of giving up a soft or unexpected goal.

5. Are those teams special? The bad news for the Hurricanes is Pittsburgh's power play is slowly rounding into form. The Pens scored twice with the man advantage in Game 7 and twice in Game 6. If Gonchar is able to play, that makes Pittsburgh even more dangerous on the power play.

The Canes have been miserable, scoring just five times on 48 chances so far this spring. The Penguins also have drawn more power-play chances than any other team in the postseason (66 compared with 48 for Carolina, which has played one more game). That's a function of a talented team that plays a pressure-style game with three lines that can generate offense and tire out opponents and draw penalties. The Hurricanes will have to limit the Penguins' power-play chances and get their own special teams in gear to keep the Pens honest.

• Teams' productivity: Given the up-tempo flow we're expecting in this series, productivity up and down the lineup will be key, and there looks to be a huge imbalance along the blue line. That could mean the difference in the series. Pittsburgh defensemen have chipped in 10 goals compared with just two from Carolina blueliners. That's not to say players such as Joni Pitkanen (no goals, seven assists) and Joe Corvo (one goal, five assists) aren't playing well; but when guys such as Pittsburgh's Mark Eaton (four goals) are getting in on the act, the pressure will be on the Canes' rear guards to produce.

• Pittsburgh: Letang, asked to shoulder a bigger load with Gonchar hurt, has nine points in the playoffs, including an overtime winner. He also scored the goal that chased Varlamov in Game 7. Chris Kunitz has not scored in the postseason and has just one goal in his past 23 games.

• Carolina: OK, so he has gone three games without a goal or a point, but come on: Jussi Jokinen has been on a rainbow this spring. Waived by the Tampa Bay Lightning (how does that happen?), Jokinen has six goals, including three game winners, and 10 points. Erik Cole has not scored and was dropped from the first unit with Ryan Whitney and Eric Staal in favor of Scott Walker (turned out to be a good move, no?).

• This one is going to be a ton of fun to watch, but, in the end, the Canes don't have an adequate answer for Crosby and Malkin. As long as Fleury doesn't completely lose his mind, the Pens should be able to dictate how things go in this one. Penguins in six.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.