Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor
RALEIGH, N.C. -- In the end, the Pittsburgh Penguins had an answer for every question the Carolina Hurricanes posed in the Eastern Conference Finals. As a result, the Penguins finished off a stunningly savage four-game sweep Tuesday night with an efficient 4-1 victory at the RBC Center.
Pittsburgh now awaits the winner of the Western Conference Finals to find out who it will play in the Stanley Cup Final. Detroit, which beat Pittsburgh in six games in last year's Final, needs just one more victory against Chicago to win that best-of-7 series. Game 5 is Wednesday night.
Carolina, which showed an unwavering ability to withstand the best punches offered by the opposition in the first two rounds, was knocked down repeatedly throughout this series by the Penguins, who outscored Carolina 20-9 in the four games.
"There are no flukes in a seven-game series," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "(Pittsburgh) deserved to win."
The Penguins deserved to win because they were the team that dictated play throughout this series, even when the Cardiac 'Canes showed some inkling of the magic that carried them through upsets over third-seeded New Jersey and second-seeded Boston in the first two rounds. Pittsburgh never buckled, never wavered in its mission on those rare occasions when Carolina dominated play.
"We forced them to play our way," Pittsburgh defensemen Brooks Orpik said. "We played Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina (in the playoffs) and to me it was three different styles of teams, but we didn't do much adjusting I don't think. We made those teams play the way we wanted to play."
Pittsburgh did that again Tuesday night.
Carolina's Eric Staal scored just 96 seconds into the game to get the RBC Center crowd in full throat, a din designed to make opponents buckle. But Pittsburgh just stayed the course.
At 8:21, Ruslan Fedotenko scored the tying goal, redirecting in a Philippe Boucher shot that was going wide of the net. Then, with just 1:29 left in the first period, Maxime Talbot scored what proved to be the game-winner when his shot rolled up the stick of defensemen Anton Babchuk and floated over the glove of Cam Ward, who lost sight of the fluttering puck.
"I blocked the shot with my stick and it kind of like deflected off my stick and went high over our goalie and went in," said Babchuk, who was inserted into the lineup after being a healthy scratch for the past five games. "I don't really know how it happened and it was a funny goal. It was a bad time for that to happen."
It certainly was -- because, just like that, Pittsburgh had a lead it wouldn't relinquish. The Penguins added a second-period goal by Bill Guerin and an empty-net tally by Craig Adams -- both assisted by Sidney Crosby, by the way -- to make sure that the 30-save performance by Marc-Andre Fleury was sufficient.
Tuesday's first period was eerily similar to the first period in Game 3, when Carolina's Matt Cullen scored just 4:16 into the game to give the home team a lead only to have Evgeni Malkin answer 1:44 later. Then Crosby and Malkin scored 31 seconds apart in the period's final minute to give Pittsburgh a 3-1 lead that would grow into a 6-2 victory that all but sapped the fight from the Hurricanes.
"They battled at us in every game, came at us in every game, and they never quit," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma.
But the 'Canes could never find the answers for the red-hot Penguins, who have won eight of their last nine playoff games. On Tuesday night, they contained Malkin, who had 6 goals in the first three games -- only two have support players like Fedotenko, Talbot and Adams score. Carolina outshot Pittsburgh 31-25 in Game 4 -- the first time that happened in the series -- but saw Fleury turn in his most spectacular game.
When the domination was complete, after the handshakes had been exchanged and after the Penguins had an impromptu and unexpected party with the Prince of Wales Trophy, Carolina's Scott Walker was still shaking his head at what had happened to his team -- and his dream of playing in the Stanley Cup Final.
"You can tell they won it last year and they wanted a chance to do it again," Walker said, talking first about the conference championship and then the Stanley Cup. "I wouldn't want to be facing them if I was on one of the other two teams (remaining in the West).
"They're playing at a high level right now and their experience is definitely something that gives them confidence. They're playing well."
Midway through the second period, the teams had 1:47 of 4-on-4 action as a result of penalties to Dennis Seidenberg and Bill Guerin just 13 seconds apart. With the extra space, both teams pressed forward on the attack. Carolina was first, seeing Joe Corvo fire off a slapper, followed by an off-speed slapper by Erik Cole. Then, Eric Staal had a turnaround shot and just missed with another shot. Then, Pittsburgh answered with a Mark Eaton one-timer and a slap shot from Brooks Orpik.
Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal was a menace all night, in every facet of the game. He was the primary force in killing a pair of first-period penalties to Evgeni Malkin, as well as a third-period penalty on Craig Adams. He was also held his own in the faceoff circle. Plus, he was a physical force, hitting with malice whenever the opportunity presented itself, finishing with 5 hits. He also blocked a shot in the third period as Pittsburgh defended a two-goal lead.
Pittsburgh has won all three of its series this postseason on the road; a good sign for the Stanley Cup Final, where the Penguins will open on the road against the Western Conference champion and will need at least one road win to be crowned champs. Pittsburgh won in three very hostile buildings: Wachovia Center (Philadelphia), Verizon Center (Washington) and the RBC Center.
The Penguins bucked some very powerful history in winning Game 4 and slating away the series. Before this game, Carolina was 7-0 this postseason when first-line center Eric Staal scores a goal. So, the Hurricanes had to believe they were to the good when Staal opened the scoring -- ending a six-game drought -- just 96 seconds into the contest. But, Pittsburgh scored three-straight goals to take control.
Looking for a spark, Carolina coach Paul Maurice inserted offense-minded Anton Babchuk into the lineup, replacing the healthy Frantisek Kaberle. But, the move backfired as Babchuk was on the ice for two of Pittsburgh's three goals. On the Maxime Talbot goal -- the eventual game-winner -- Babchuk was the last defender back and watched in horror as Talbot's shot rode up the shaft of his stick and then popped over the glove of a surprised Cam Ward. In the second period, Babchuk's inability to hold the puck at the offensive blue line freed Bill Guerin and Sidney Crosby for a 2-on-1 on which Guerin scored.