Commentary

Different expectations in East finals

Updated: May 18, 2009, 5:57 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Hands up for everyone who honestly thought the Carolina Hurricanes would knock off the New Jersey Devils in the first round?

OK, we see a few of you there. Most are gathered around hibachis and coolers in the RBC Center parking lot with fruity drinks and blenders that plug into the lighters of their cars. But enough of you to suggest this wasn't a monumental upset.

Now, hands up for those who thought the Hurricanes would be able to knock off the top-seeded Boston Bruins after their miracle comeback against the Devils?

OK, Jim Rutherford, you can put your hand down. As Carolina general manager, it's your job to think positive thoughts. You too, Paul Maurice, repatriated Canes coach. Not even everyone in the RBC Center tailgate brigade had their hands up.

Which brings us to this unexpected Eastern Conference finals series and the tricky stew of emotion and expectation such a matchup brings.

Both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes have survived midseason coaching changes to charge into the playoffs with torrid second-half performances.

The Penguins expended considerable emotion and energy in knocking off cross-state rival Philadelphia in six games and then winning a seventh game on the road in Washington Wednesday in a series many have considered among the finest in recent memory.

For last season's Stanley Cup finalists, there was never a question of finding the requisite emotional charge during the first two rounds. It was constant, inevitable.

Against the Hurricanes, though, the question is whether they can find that charge, especially when contrasted to the emotional highs of the past two weeks.

"Typically, the emotion comes from past history. In the Philly and Washington series, there was past history and there's emotions from the season, as well," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said Sunday. "Carolina, there's not the past history, but I think what's at stake now. Four games to win to have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup is enough to make anyone's emotions rise."

During the Boston series, Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward lamented early on that it was hard to hate the Canes. That changed, of course, when Scott Walker delivered his sucker punch to Ward later in the series. But in general, this is a team that likes to do its talking with speed and good goaltending, not trash-talking or pushing and shoving after the whistle.

Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi acknowledged there isn't the built-in emotional catalyst that there was with Philadelphia and Washington, but that doesn't mean emotion won't be present.

"They're just a very good team," Scuderi said. "In Carolina, we're playing a team that's just full of good players and a team with lots of depth."

So, what's getting playoff scoring leader Sidney Crosby worked up at the prospect of this series? He responds quickly as though the answer was a given.

"A chance to go to the Stanley Cup final," Crosby said. "If you can't be motivated because of that, then you've got problems. They don't have the storyline or the rivalry per se, but these are two teams that want to go to the same place, so that's enough right there."

Apart from the emotion, there is now the dramatic shift in expectation factor, at least as far as the Penguins are concerned.

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau talked before his Game 7 about how he believed the pressure was on the home team to close out the series and the visiting team could play looser, unencumbered by such expectation. He turned out to be right as the Caps collapsed in monumental fashion, losing 6-2. The Bruins suffered no such collapse, but still could not push that one, crucial goal by Carolina goalie Cam Ward, sending Boston fans home empty after a season of such promise.

In this series, expectations will rest solely on the Penguins. They have the best player in this postseason in Crosby. They have the NHL's regular-season scoring champ in Evgeni Malkin, who, while showing some uneven play against Washington, remains a dynamic force the Hurricanes have not yet faced this spring.

For the Canes, this dynamic is something of an old slipper this spring, comfortable and easy-fitting. "That helps," Maurice said.

"There was a shift in the Boston series where we went from underdog to having a 3-1 lead and that was a change in pressure for us," Maurice said. The coach said the team didn't play as poorly as the scores might have indicated in those losses.

"But that was our first taste of having the pressure of not being the underdog," Maurice said. "There's an advantage to it, but it's not equal, though. Because the advantage to being the favorite is, you get to start the first two games at home, you get home-ice advantage. So, I would trade the underdog status for the home-ice advantage. At the same time, we've flourished in that environment and seemed to have accepted that role."

Veteran center Rod Brind'Amour isn't sure if the whole underdog/favorite storyline will have legs.

"I don't know if it's an advantage or disadvantage. Something will happen [in the series] and then it will be on," he said.

Still, reporters aren't going to come charging into the Carolina dressing room in droves demanding to know why Ward isn't better or why Eric Staal isn't scoring the big goal if the Hurricanes get down a couple of games. If they do, they will come in rather smaller numbers than those that descended on Jeff Carter and Daniel Briere of the Flyers in the first round and Alexander Semin (provided you could actually find him) and Mike Green in the second round.

The more those questions were asked of those players, the more they seemed to shrink.

"If you're the underdog, you say, 'Great, we've got nothing to lose,'" Brind'Amour said. "But if you're the favorite, you say, 'Hey, we've got the talent, let's do it.' It doesn't really matter."

Still, there is some mystery still surrounding the Canes, the ultimate "go big or go home" team.

After winning the Cup in 2006, they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons and now return to at least a conference final in their first playoff appearance since raising the Cup. Big-game mentality? Expectation? They could care less how many hands are in the air when you ask whether anyone thinks they can win this series.

It's the way it should be. No doubt the Devils and Bruins thought they were ready for these Cardiac Canes. Ultimately, they weren't.

Hands up for those who think this series should be a dandy?

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.